The use of four “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, do no evil” monkey statues in a goodbye video made by staff at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in Washington DC is evidence of “creating a racially hostile work environment,” an Indian-born judge serving on the US District Court in America’s capital has ruled.
Judge Amit Priyavadan Mehta, born in Patan, Gujarat, India, ruled that the “use of monkey statuettes to depict black department directors in a goodbye video for a subordinate employee could, by itself, support one director’s claim of a racially hostile work environment, depending on further discovery into the video-maker’s intent.”
The claim, made by one Reginald Vance, a black dean of the learning university at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), said that four monkeys used in his goodbye video for an employee to depict four directors –two of which are white—raised “triable issues on whether this created a hostile work environment based on race.”
“Given a history of racial stereotypes depicting African Americans as animals or monkeys, it could be reasonable to conclude the imagery was intended as a racial insult, but it was too early to say because the employee had not yet had a chance to obtain discovery on the dean’s intent,” Judge Mehta ruled, denying the defendant’s motion for summary judgment.
The employee in question worked for the VA starting in 2013, first as a supervisory program supervisor in the VA’s learning university (VALU) and then, after the VALU was disbanded in January 2017, as a director of learning infrastructure in the office of enterprise support services.
During the reorganization, the employee’s second-line supervisor, who was the dean of VALU, created a farewell video for a departing employee. The dean was seated alone behind a small table, on which sat four monkey statuettes. One had its hands covering its eyes; another its ears; and the third its mouth. The fourth monkey had its hands by its side. In front of those sat a two-foot-long, two-inch-high sign stating: “You Don’t Have To Be Crazy To Work Here… We’ll Train You.”
During the 26-second video, the dean stated, in part: “Hi Amber. Several members of the senior staff and I have gathered here today to wish you a fond farewell. Of course you can see some of the Directors here, I won’t name them, you can figure out which ones are which. We want to wish you the very best in your new job.”
According to the dean, the four monkeys represented “see no evil,” “hear no evil,” “speak no evil,” and “do no evil,” and he meant no offense by alluding to the directors as monkeys.
The employee was not present at the farewell video and did not see the video until it became “viral.” However, the video and other incidents formed the basis for his race-based hostile work environment claim.
The court noted that “other courts in the district have held that using a monkey” to depict blacks “can, by itself, constitute a hostile work environment. Given the racial stereotypes against African Americans and the prevalent one of African Americans as animals or monkeys, it could be reasonable to view the use of monkey imagery as a racial insult.”
Because the employer had been quick, in this case, to move for summary judgment, the employee had not yet had the chance to take discovery concerning the dean’s making of the goodbye video. So while the court might ultimately find that the dean harbored no racial animus, it could not yet say so as a matter of law. Summary judgment was therefore denied.
The court ruled that all parties have to submit initial disclosures on or before March 15, 2019, and that the Post-Discovery Status Conference is set for August 23, 2019.