By Mark Carey
This article features a current employment discrimination case brought by a former Metlife employee in Connecticut on December 4, 2019. The employee, who is Black, accuses Metlife of race discrimination in her employment. The case was filed pro se and I volunteered as pro bono counsel along with a colleague in May 2020. The case is captioned as Stefanie Cunningham v. Metlife Group, Inc. and Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, 3:19-cv-01912 (AWT) (D.Conn.). A copy of the First Amended Complaint is attached hereto.
In September 2011, Ms. Cunningham became employed with Metlife, in the company’s Bloomfield, Connecticut offices. She worked there continuously and with good performance reviews until racial problems arose in her employment. During her tenure, Ms. Cunningham was working towards her Ph.D.
In July 2017, Ashlee Tringo, a biracial African American, became Ms. Cunningham’s supervisor. Ms. Cunningham’s former supervisor was Ms. Tringo’s husband, a Caucasian. Ms. Tringo asked Ms. Cunningham if she was Puerto Rican, and she responded no, that she was African American. You are probably thinking, why is the supervisor attempting to discover her race and why is that even relevant to her work duties—it’s not! Ms. Cunningham retorted that she does not talk about her race at work and that she was raised African American. Coincidentally, Ms. Cunningham’s sister was also employed at the company. Ms. Tringo further asked why Ms. Cunningham and her sister had different textured hair. Specifically, Ms. Tringo inquired if Ms. Cunningham was mixed race or biracial. Adamant, Ms. Tringo argued that she could see the textual differences in the sisters’ hair and demanded to know why. Again, these are not relevant questions related to work and are discriminatory.
During her training, Ms. Cunningham was confronted by another African American employee who was providing job training. The employee stated to Ms. Cunningham “you are a fake black person”. Ms. Cunningham immediately reported the incident to Human Resources and explained how shocked she was by the work environment at Metlife. An investigation ensued but as usual the company failed to confirm the existence of any discrimination or even that the racial statement was made.
In October 2017, Ms. Tringo abruptly gave Ms. Cunningham a written warning that was factually baseless and intended to harass Ms. Cunningham.
During her employment she would attend daily team huddles, wherein Ms. Tringo again made comments about Ms. Cunningham’s hair, that it is kinky and looks like pubic hair. Again, why is this even relevant to Ms. Cunningham’s work duties and performance—it’s not.
Ms. Tringo would often discuss her personal life while at work in front of Ms. Cunningham. “Ms. Tringo described the details of taking a shower with Matt [her husband and Ms. Cunningham’s former supervisor] at his parents’ house, compared to her new master bathroom at their new home, with sexual inferences. Ms. Tringo stated that she had more white girlfriends then black ones and in fact she stated she didn’t have any black girlfriends. She also told Plaintiff and others how she was a bully in school and that she had her friends help her bully and taunt a girl for stealing her sneakers.” (First Amend. Compl. ¶23).
On July 17, 2017, a federal judge (Judge William Pauley, III, deceased) in Manhattan approved a $32.5 million settlement to resolve a racial discrimination class action suit filed by former Metlife financial service representatives. “At Metlife, we are committed to promoting a diverse and inclusive workplace and do not condone discrimination,” Kim Friedman, a company spokesperson, said in a July 6, 2017 email to Bloomberg BNA.”
On April 25, 2018, Metlife received a state agency complaint for racial discrimination that Ms. Cunningham had filed the same day via telephone. On that same date, Ms. Cunningham received a written warning for allegedly “not being productive”; she refused to sign the warning. “After being handed the warning [Ms. Cunningham] just started to cry as she had tried so hard to rise above all the discriminatory conduct and finally hit a wall.” (First Amend. Comp. ¶ 57). After the complaint was filed, Ms. Tringo targeted Ms. Cunningham and made every attempt to force her to quit. Eventually, Ms. Cunningham was forced to take a medical leave of absence on June 7, 2018 due to the enormous stress caused by Ms. Tringo’s racial discrimination directed at her.
Before her leave, Ms. Cunningham repeatedly complained to Human Resources in January 2018 but nothing was ever done to correct the racially hostile work environment which continued until the day Ms. Cunningham left on a short term disability leave of absence. She relayed all of Ms. Tringo’s racial comments, that her hair looks like pubic hair, whether her hair was real, if she used chemicals to straighten her hair, if she was the lightest one in her family etc. The Human Resources employee admitted Ms. Cunningham should not have been treated in this discriminatory manner and told her she would speak to Ms. Tringo directly. Ms. Cunningham requested a transfer out of the department, but the Human Resource employee stated she had to work out her differences with Ms. Tringo. How does a Black employee work out “differences” created by a racist bi-racial supervisor they are forced to work under? Things got even worse. Ms. Cunningham was denied a promotion by Ms. Tringo, which was given to a lesser qualified Caucasian co-worker. In February 2018, Ms. Cunningham again complained to Human Resources asking to be removed from an unhealthy work environment. The Human Resource employee denied her request.
On May 7, 2018, Metlife concluded it’s purported investigation of Ms. Cunningham’s complaints of racial discrimination and reported that it had found no racial issues. The HR investigator told Ms. Cunningham she had interviewed her coworkers, but Ms. Cunningham asked her coworkers if anyone from HR had called them. Her coworkers all denied being questioned by HR. On June 6, 2018, Ms. Cunningham filed a police report complaining of a hostile work environment and racial discrimination.
On June 1, 2020, Metlife tweeted on its social media account, “As a company that is deeply committed to diversity, inclusion and human rights, we will strengthen our resolve in advocating for change and in doing our part so that we build a society that protects all people and values all voices.”
On June 18, 2020, the Metlife Foundation “announced it was committing $5 million over the next three years to advance racial equity in the United States. The Foundation will use these funds to promote Black educational and career opportunities, Black business ownership, and racial-justice initiatives…Metlife Foundation’s $5 million pledge will supplement the $10 million in annual contributions it already makes to support diverse communities and racial equality, along with $100 million in impact investments made by Metlife Investment Management to support diverse communities and small businesses.” However, Metlife never defines what these initiatives are or defines impact investments. You would need to research these in company filings made to the Securities & Exchange Commission, but who besides me has the time and patience to do so—no one that’s the point—it’s all a marketing and public relations program to make it appear Metlife is concerned about important social issues.
The Metlife Foundation announcement goes on to include this statement, “[I]n 2019, Metlife joined CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion, the largest CEO-driven business commitment to advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace.” The Metlife CEO is Michel Khalaf, who reportedly earned $15,434,255 in total compensation in 2020. (Source) All CEOs who join the initiative pledge a specific set of actions the signatory CEOs will take to cultivate a trusting environment where all ideas are welcomed, and employees feel comfortable and empowered to have discussions about diversity and inclusion.” Remember, this CEO initiative began at the same time as Ms. Cunningham’s racial discrimination case was getting under way.
The CEO pledge reveals the primary goal for all company CEOs that sign it, “we know that diversity is good for the economy; it improves corporate performance, drives growth and enhances employee engagement.” The pledge contains four commitments all company CEOs have committed their organizations to:
- We will continue to make our workplaces trusting places to have complex, and sometimes difficult conversations about diversity and inclusion.
- We will implement and expand unconscious bias education.
- We will share best—and unsuccessful—practices.
- We will create and share strategic inclusion and diversity plans with our board of directors.
On June 24, 2020, Metlife tweeted “[i]nclusion is a priority at Metlife. Click here to read how we’re using our Global #Inclusion and #Diversity Insights Study to strengthen our culture: spr.ly/6011GKo11” When you click on the last link in the text it produces a 404 error code meaning the company page was taken down. Why?
According to the company’s website regarding Global Diversity Inclusion “Our Workplace”, the company fails to include any information about Blacks on this set of pages describing current diversity and inclusion initiatives. Why?
On June 21, 2021, Metlife filed a certified EEO-1 form to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which reveals that no (zero) Blacks or African Americans occupy positions in the C-suite (Executive Officers/Senior Officials & Managers). Overall, Blacks or African Americans occupy only 3% of the entire company workforce. In comparison, Blacks and African Americans comprise 13.4% of the U.S. population, according to the latest Census data. However, Dr. Cindy Pace, African American, is the Vice President, Global Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at Metlife. She has held this lead role since April 2019. She tweets at https://twitter.com/savvycindy.
Ms. Cunningham’s case continues to the present. As her attorneys, we have recently filed motions to compel further discovery and motions for sanctions against the defendants and their legal counsel. The issues involved in each motion address the wholesale failure to provide relevant discovery to Ms. Cunningham and absurd legal objections designed to conceal the very same racial discrimination alleged in the First Amended Complaint. In addition, Metlife has sought to shield a great many documents behind the attorney-client privilege. However, as claimed in Ms. Cunningham’s motions, Metlife abused the attorney-client privilege because the attorney identified in the defendants’ privilege log was not admitted in Connecticut during all dates of his communications from New York to the defendants’ employees in Connecticut who were handling Ms. Cunningham’s internal complaints of discrimination and her agency complaint for the same. Strangely, during a telephone conference, I was sternly warned by defendants’ legal counsel not to pursue a claim of the unauthorized practice of law by the out-of-state attorney in New York, who was also a former associate at the same firm. Both the District of Connecticut and the Statewide Grievance Panel will have to decide this issue.
What is your impression regarding Metlife’s efforts to support Black Lives Matter and Diversity Initiative while also handling of Ms. Cunningham’s case during the same period of time? Is Metlife canceling Ms. Cunningham while at the same time seeking to promote its’ corporate image related to the treatment of Blacks in America? The aforementioned information was all derived from publicly available information.
If you would like more information about this article and about employment discrimination, please contact our employment attorneys in Connecticut at Carey & Associates P.C. at 203-255-4150.