Know Your Rights
Last week we introduced a collaborative effort between the Italian Tribune newspaper
and the Italian American One Voice Coalition (IAOVC). The following article has been
written by an active member of IAOVC. We will be bringing you over the course of this
year many interesting articles by the One Voice Coalition to keep you abreast of issues
of discrimination against Italian Americans in the media including movies, television,
radio, commercials and print.
How often have you encountered discrimination, especially harassing comments, because of your ethnic background as an Italian American? What if these comments are made in your workplace? Do you know what to do and where to go to complain about these issues? It has been my experience that Italian Americans don’t know where to go and if they do know, resist filing complaints. I say this from my many years in the field of civil rights law enforcement and my experience in handling thousands of employment discrimination cases. Some would suggest that Italian Americans are taught as children to not complain about such things. Others would suggest that there is nothing to gain by filing charges. Others fear the retaliation that may ensue after complaining. It is my hope and the hope of the Italian American One Voice Coalition that through this series of articles on knowing your rights, that some of those impediments to filing charges will be removed.
Let me tell you about two courageous Italian American women from Rhode Island, Carol Stifano and her daughter Carol Cote and the charges they filed against the American Legion Post 12 in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. Carol Cote was first hired by the Legion in late 1997 to work as a full time bartender. Her mother, Ms. Stifano was later hired to be a part-time bartender in early 1999. The two worked under a bar manager named Deborah Potter who had been promoted to that position in 1995. All three women were subsequently terminated between December 1999 and January 2000. What led to their terminations and subsequent actions they took are at the core of this story.
Shortly after Ms. Cote began working at the Legion post, she began to be referred to as the “Mini Guinea”. At first she took this nickname in jest and even invented a cocktail by the same name. But as time went by and the use of the nickname became more pronounced, she began to tell the bar patrons to stop using it and even complained to Ms. Potter, her supervisor and also to Grant Kettelle, Chairman of the Legion’s Board of Governors. Despite these complaints, the name calling did not stop and some patrons openly complained that they did not want to be served by an Italian.
When Ms. Cote mother, Ms.Stifano began her part time employment, she knew of her daughter’s complaints but thought she could handle the situation. She soon found out what it was really like on her first night at work when she was called “Mama Guinea” by a patron. She and her daughter would later be called the “Mama Daughter Guinea Act.” She would also complain to Ms .Potter about the name calling.
There were also instances of sexual harassment towards mother and daughter. On one occasion a member of the Legion’s Board of Governors put his hand down Ms. Cote’s shirt and grabbed her breast. This same person later acted toward Ms. Stifano by fully exposing his genitals. She immediately complained to Ms. Potter and wanted to file a complaint with the local police. Ms. Potter told her that Mr. Kettelle didn’t like any trouble with the police. That patron was subsequently banned from the post. Another patron would frequently want to lick the arms of both mother and daughter. Both complained to Mr. Kettelle about this patron’s actions. No action was ever taken against him by the Legion. More incidents of sexual harassment followed. More complaints were made to Ms. Potter and by Ms. Potter to Mr. Kettelle, but nothing was done to stop these offenses. What Mr. Kettelle did do was fire mother and daughter in December 1999. Soon after in February 2000, Ms. Potter was fired as well.
Ms. Stifano and Ms. Cote contacted a lawyer who assisted them in preparing to file a charge with the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights. In preparing for the filing, the attorney had contacted Ms. Potter to secure a statement about the harassment. She agreed to provide the statement. Prior to filing the action with the Rhode Island Commission, the attorney gave notice to the Legion and attached a copy of Ms. Potter’s affidavit. Shortly afterwards, Ms. Potter was fired. All three women filed charges with the Rhode Island Commission.
In the process of investigation and subsequent hearing, evidence was presented that supported the claims. The Rhode Island Commission ultimately found that Mr. Stifano and Ms. Cote were the victims of sexual harassment as well because of their ancestral origins and harassed as well because of their ancestral origin. Ms. Potter was also found to have been a victim of retaliatory actions because she had dared to provide support to the mother and daughter. All three were awarded back pay and compensatory damages.
But the story doesn’t end there as the Legion decided to file an appeal of the Rhode Island Commission’s decision with the Providence County Superior Court. The Legion argued that the Rhode Island Commission’s decision was arbitrary and capricious and the assessment of damages was unsubstantiated by the evidence. The Legion also argued that it should not be held liable for the actions of its patrons. In a decision filed on November 30, 2005, Justice Jeffrey Lanphear delivered his decision in which he not only upheld the Rhode Island Commission’s ruling, but in rather clear and strong language, laid out the facts of the case.
Under the Rhode Island Fair Employment Practices Act (“FEPA”), an employer is prohibited from discriminating against an employee with respect to the “terms, conditions or privileges of employment” based on that employee’s sex or country of ancestral origin. These prohibitions are almost universally found in every federal, state and municipal statute governing non-discrimination in the workplace. As Justice Lanphear noted in his decision, both complainants are female and born of Italian descent. Furthermore, the alleged harassment was unquestionably based on sex and ancestral origin. The evidence supported the finding that the harassment was sufficiently severe and pervasive. He similarly noted that despite its knowledge, the only action taken by the Legion was to tell the patrons to “knock it off.”
Addressing the matter of retaliation, Justice Lanphear found that all three complainants had been retaliated against for opposing discriminatory employment practices. For Ms. Cote and Ms.Stifano, the Justice noted that both had established that they had complained about the ancestral origin and sexual discrimination and were fired shortly after complaining about individuals who had refused to be served by them because they were Italian. For Ms. Potter, Justice Lanphear noted that she had engaged in protected conduct when she decided to cooperate with mother and daughter’s attorney. In both finding, the court noted the shortness of time between the protected activity and the terminations.
In his conclusion Justice Lanphear wrote “These were not games by adolescents. These were reprehensible acts, by grown men who should have known much better. The repugnant actions of staff and customers, continuous and unchecked by the employer or its governing officials, gives this court great pause. The failure of those in control to prevent the ongoing harm illustrates that their conduct was not mere callous indifference. Not only did the respondents fail to rise to the occasion by ensuring common decency in their establishment, they condoned the behavior by sticking their heads in the sand.”
At the beginning of this article I referred to the mother and daughter as courageous women. What makes them courageous is the strength of conviction and determination to be respected for who they are both as women and Italians. At first Ms. Cote took the name calling in jest and later felt the sting of the insults. How many of us have first taken the name calling and insults at first as a joke only to realize later what venom was behind those names and taunts? And,what about the sexual harassment against these two? Note that there was no claim nor evidence that Ms. Potter was ever sexually harassed. Yet the two Italian women were harassed.
In the many years that Italian American activists have been documenting the media’s negative portrayal of Italian Americans, one constant has been the portrayal of Italian American women. Most of you I imagine are familiar with some of these images, the morally loose, oversexed, hot tempered Italian woman. It is a characterization that has left an indelible mark in America’s psyche. Whether we consciously think about these images when we interact with Italian American women is really not the important issue. It is the unconscious biases that are formed in us through a constant barrage of such images to which we respond without conscious thought. As Justice Lanphear rightly noted in his conclusion, these were not games by adolescents but rather reprehensible acts by grown men who should have known better. How much did the history of these images play a role in the men’s actions?
In the next installment of Know Your Rights, we will discuss another case much closer to home here in New Jersey.
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