PORTLAND, Maine — William Apire, a Sudanese immigrant who is now a U.S. citizen, has sued Whole Foods, alleging that supervisors at the grocer’s Portland store fired him for lodging complaints about harassment that began when he found on his desk a toy pig with a string tied around its neck.
Apire filed his suit against the all-organic grocer in U.S. District Court on Friday, claiming that supervisors at the store ignored his complaints of racial harassment, workplace intimidation and a hostile work environment that he said began in February 2013.
Apire began working at the market in May 2007, according to the complaint, and had become an assistant team leader months prior to the first incident.
The lawsuit comes after Apire waited more than a year for a judgment in a complaint to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In August, the complaint stated, he received a right-to-sue notice from the commission, allowing him to pursue the complaint in court.
Apire alleges four counts of violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 over six months in which he said his complaints were ignored and harassment from co-workers escalated.
The company has not yet filed a formal response to the complaint and said Monday it had not yet been served notice of the lawsuit.
“We cannot comment on this case as we have not yet been served,” the company said in an emailed statement. “However, Whole Foods Market has always fostered a culture of respect and empowerment for all team members and we take a no-tolerance approach to harassment in any form.”
In June, the complaint states, Apire for a second time reportedly found the toy pig on his desk, this time hanging from a string from his computer monitor. He took a photo of it with his phone. A supervisor then told him he was not allowed to photograph anything in the office, the lawsuit claims.
Apire claimed various instances of verbal harassment from co-workers and a supervisor, including ethnic slurs, veiled threats and statements from the supervisor that his team shouldn’t listen to Apire because of his skin color.
He said multiple supervisors made no written record of the complaints, based on review of his employment file requested in early 2015, and he was repeatedly told to ignore the issue.
Apire claimed the complaints came to a head during a meeting with a regional human resources representative in July 2013, during which he was fired.
“[Apire] mistakenly thought he was finally going to have the opportunity to talk directly to a human resources director in the Boston office about the racial intimidation and harassment he had been subjected to from superiors and subordinates since February of 2013,” the complaint states.
Apire claims in the complaint that during the six months he spoke with various supervisors at the company, at the local and regional level, he was urged to stop discussing the incidents.