A federal court suit accusing global insurer Assurant Inc. of racial bias and retaliation against Black employees has escalated as the plaintiffs seek to add more allegations and the provider of finance and insurance products attempts to get the case tossed out.
The rhetoric has heated up as well, with the insurer attacking the claims in a court filing as "a series of conclusory, disjointed, vague and often contradictory allegations" and the plaintiffs sending a harshly worded public letter to Assurant's board of directors.
Their Feb. 9 letter said it is "utterly clear that race discrimination pervades every part of Assurant's corporate hierarchy" and accused the company of lying about its corporate structure and trying to "escape liability by pinning blame on a shell entity." It raised the question of "potential securities fraud" by the publicly traded company for allegedly misrepresenting its corporate structure to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The litigation began last June in U.S. District Court in Manhattan when three current or former employees filed a class action complaint against Assurant seeking an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages. Two more plaintiffs later joined the suit.
Now they want permission to amend the complaint to add a sixth plaintiff, arguing that his experience shows that "without any doubt, Assurant's 'standard operating procedure' or 'regular than unusual practice' is to discriminate against employees with brown or black skin."
Four of the six still work for Assurant.
The suit alleges that, for years, senior managers ignored complaints of "horrific racial discrimination," retaliated against Black employees who complained about on-the-job bias and "repeatedly promoted and rewarded the white individuals responsible for carrying out the racial discrimination." As examples, it quotes comments allegedly made by a white manager about slavery and "the rights of white citizens to bear arms" and describes alleged biased promotion, salary, bonus, commission and sales territory assignment practices.
The public letter referred to Assurant's statement that at least half its directors are "diverse in gender, race and/or ethnicity." The letter continued, "Yet, as employees, we experience a workplace where senior management is exclusively white men. It is confounding that the board believes that having diversity among its own members excuses Assurant from reflecting such values in its work force.
"We have held out hope that Assurant might acknowledge some of the wrongdoing and discrimination we have faced," the letter said. None of the directors has responded to the letter, according to the plaintiffs' lawyer, Jeanne Christensen, of New York City.
One of the plaintiffs in the case contacted by Automotive News declined comment.
Assurant's senior vice president for global communications, Linda Recupero, declined to comment on the specifics of the litigation but said, "Assurant stands firmly against discrimination of any kind. One of Assurant's guiding principles is to promote and foster a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace."
"We deny these claims, are confident they will be found without merit and will defend this lawsuit vigorously to a successful conclusion," she said in an email.
Assurant has moved to dismiss the case on procedural and substantive grounds or to have it transferred to Georgia, where it announced on Feb. 7 that it had moved its corporate headquarters. One of its court filings said some of the plaintiffs have benefited from "favorable promotion decisions" and received performance-based awards. One received bonuses "250%, 500% and even 1,000%+ more than his white peers," it said.
Christensen told Automotive News that the Assurant website "devotes a lot of attention to their diversity, including the diversity of their board of directors," with a section about diversity awards it has received.
"We've written to some of these organizations that decide who wins such awards to see what evidence was looked at but, of course, we have not heard back from anybody," Christensen said. "Obviously a public company is making representations like this for a reason. They expect it to influence people."
She also questioned some of the insurer's claims, including one denying that it has any of its own personnel and saying employees all work for subsidiaries.
She declined to say how many current and former Black managers and employees could be covered if a judge grants class action status to the case, but the open letter put the number as "many hundreds."