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Courtwatch: Racial Discrimination Lawsuit filed Against Terlato Wine Group

by Kerana Todorov
May 28, 2021
Napa County Superior Courthouse - historic courthouse. Photo by Kerana Todorov

An African American woman has filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against a wine company where she worked as a temporary employee, according to a complaint filed in Napa.

Kimberly Cunningham alleges Terlato Wine Group Ltd. failed to prevent the harassment she suffered during her three-month tenure in 2018, according to the complaint filed May 21 in Napa County Superior Court. Terlato’s holdings in Napa include Rutherford Hill and Chimney Rock. The lawsuit also named individual managers.

The plaintiff was hired on Aug. 10, 2018, on a temporary basis as “an accounts payable specialist” at Terlato to fill in for an employee who was on leave, according to court records. Cunningham had been placed at Terlato through Accountemps, a division of Robert Half. Cunningham, alleged she was wrongly terminated Nov. 6, 2018, according to the court filing.

In her complaint, Cunningham alleged managers and supervisors created a hostile work environment from the get-go, according to the lawsuit.

Within her first week at Terlato, Cunningham, the only African American at the office, alleged she was falsely accused of “making a mess and leaving coffee grinds in the sink,” according to the complaint. Cunningham felt singled out, according to the lawsuit.

While other employees were never scrutinized for how they washed office dishes and never used the dishwasher, Cunningham was told to use the dishwasher instead of washing dishes in the sink, according to the complaint. Cunningham stopped using the communal kitchen after the office manager later wrongly accused her of leaving a wine glass near the sink, according to the complaint.

Cunningham was “most dismayed” to find out that employees kept “black-skinned ‘dammit dolls’ in their desk drawers, according to the complaint. “The ‘dammit dolls’ were supposed to be shaken, squeezed, twisted and beaten when an employee felt stressed or upset,” according to the lawsuit.

Among other alleged incidents, Cunningham said she was asked one day if her “’weave was tight’” when she wore braids at work; she was unjustly berated for not preparing vendor checks, a task that had not been requested; Cunningham was referred as the “’strong (Black) woman’” by the payroll clerk, according to the lawsuit.

Cunningham alleged the hostility and harassment toward her only increased after she raised her concerns of race discrimination to the controller, the woman she reported to, according to the complaint.

When Cunningham inquired about an available cost accountant position, she was told she “wasn’t eligible because she was not an employee and the company ‘wanted people who got along well,’” according to the lawsuit.

The woman Cunningham was temporarily fill-in for, as it turns out, is also African American. The woman, Tammy Barnes, told Cunningham, she, too, had been “subjected to race discrimination and a hostile work environment by many of the same people who were harassing Cunningham,” the complaint alleged. Barnes was out of the office under the Family and Medical Leave Act, according to the lawsuit.

Barnes told Cunningham she took time off “due to extreme emotional distress due to the treatment she experienced” with the defendants, the court filing alleged. When Barnes returned to work early November, her position was relocated to Chicago; she was terminated, according to the complaint.

Barnes showed Cunningham before she left the company a “well-organized book” that would have been a guide for anyone executing her duties, according to the lawsuit. “When Cunningham learned of this book she was devastated. She had struggled to succeed in her position and the ‘handbook’ had not even been provided to her,” the lawsuit alleged.

Cunningham seeks unspecified damages, attorney fees and the cost of the suit – more than $25,000, according to the lawsuit.

Terlato is the 34th largest winery in the United States, selling 615,000 cases annually, according to Wine Business Monthly. The company’s headquarters is in metropolitan Chicago.

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