Shem Semei Garrett, a 40-year-old painter at NYU, filed a discrimination lawsuit against the university on Tuesday. He began working at NYU in 1989, became a full-time employee in 1999 and is still employed by the university. Garrett claims to have regularly experienced discrimination since or around 2008.
He is also suing former Associate Vice President John Bradley, Utility Department Head Matthew D’Elia and Paint Shop Foreman Nick Nikolaidis.
Garrett, a Bronx resident who is African American, first filed his claims with the New York District Office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2014, and the organization said his allegations violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which qualified him for a discrimination lawsuit.
His allegations include but are not limited to the following:
- Nikolaidis called Garrett derogatory and racist names such as the n-word, asshole and other homophobic slurs
- Nikolaidis referenced Garrett to colleagues and employees as “that black”
- An ex-coworker, Chris Diglio, showed Garrett a noose hung over a pipe in the work area while laughing
- Bradley mimicked African-Americans by talking in slang and walking while grabbing his groin, an act witnessed by supervisors within Garrett’s department
- A supervisor once saw Garrett painting with black paint and said, “of all the painters at the University they have the black painting the black paint?”
According to the official court documents, Garrett is suing on five main claims: “unlawful discrimination in violation of federal law based upon race and color,” “unlawful retaliation in violation of federal law,” “discrimination and retaliation in violation of New York State human rights law/executive law, “aiding and abetting under New York State human rights law/executive law” and “discrimination and retaliation under Title VIII of the New York City Administrative Code.”
Garrett is the only black employee in the majority Greek utility department, and he wants affirmative relief for “back pay from lost overtime opportunities, compensatory damages, punitive damages, attorneys’ fees, costs and disbursements and such other and further relief as to which [he] may be entitled.”
Garrett claims these repeated events caused him stress and depression as well as physical health concerns. Additionally, he claims his interpersonal relationships and work performance have been adversely affected.
University spokesperson John Beckman said that NYU does not tolerate any kind of racism and never will. He said that while there is no dispute about whether Garrett was presented a noose by a colleague, the other claims are less clear.
“Because the university takes allegations of this kind of conduct so seriously, the university has directed its Office of Equal Opportunity to take a fresh look at the work unit and these allegations in light of the information included in the lawsuit,” Beckman said. “We are committed to rooting out racism in the workplace, and we want to get at the truth in all matters. But we are not prepared to pay the kind of exorbitant, unreasonable sums being demanded.”
He said that the university looks forward to the opportunity to defend itself in court, even as it looks anew at whether there is a hostile work environment that needs to be change.
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