Fired clerk alleges bosses used racist code words By BARBARA FEDER OSTROV San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News It wasn't about what the supervisor said. It was about what she said backward. In one of the first cases of its kind, the federal government has filed an employment discrimination lawsuit against a Los Gatos, Calif. medical clinic, alleging that a white supervisor used racial code words to intimidate an African-American file clerk. One of the code words, according to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint filed Wednesday in San Francisco federal court, was ``reggin,'' the infamous racial slur spelled backward. The clerk, 29-year-old Tomeika L. Broussard, was fired in early 2004 after she complained to her superiors about the code words, said Sanya Hill Maxion, an EEOC attorney working on the case. Dr. Robert Aptekar, who oversees the Arthritis and Orthopedic Medical Clinic, did not return calls for comment, and Broussard declined to talk with the Mercury News. The supervisor is not named in the lawsuit. The case underscores the changing nature of racial discrimination in the workplace, which experts say has morphed from overt to more subtle forms of intimidation. Employers take these kinds of cases seriously because the damages can be high. In June a jury awarded $61 million to two Oakland FedEx Ground drivers of Lebanese descent who claimed a manager continuously harassed them with racial slurs such including ``terrorists'' and ``camel jockeys.'' Maxion believes this case is the first such case the EEOC's San Francisco district office has filed, although the case is not based entirely on the use of racial code words. She's working on another, similar case that has not been filed yet, she said. Efforts to reach a settlement in the Los Gatos case failed, Maxion said. Now, Broussard is seeking back pay and undetermined punitive financial damages. ``Even though the n-word is backward, it doesn't remove the fact that it's an inflammatory racial slur,'' Maxion said. ``We're seeing more and more cases these days in which code words are being used to cloak discrimination. We're starting to recognize that this is a problem.'' Maxion said that when Broussard came to work at the 40-employee clinic in June 2003, she was warned by her co-workers that her supervisor used racial code words. Co-workers and Broussard herself heard the supervisor referring to Broussard -- the clinic's only black employee -- as ``reggin'' and ``N.P.,'' short for the slang ``***** please.'' One co-worker described Broussard's hair as ``nappy,'' a derogatory term, according to the EEOC's investigation. The medical office denied the allegations when the EEOC investigated and said Broussard was not let go, but the agency contends she was indeed fired, Maxion said. The EEOC is in relatively uncharted legal waters. The federal agency recently issued new guidelines for employers warning them about the use of potentially offensive code words. In one 1996 case -- Aman vs. Cort Furniture Rental Corp. -- the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that white supervisors and co-workers' repeated use of terms such as ``one of them'' and ``poor people'' in referring to two black employees constituted racial code words that created a discriminatory and hostile environment. In the Los Gatos clinic lawsuit, the EEOC argues that the clinic's conduct violated Broussard's rights under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The EEOC only brings 40 to 50 cases to trial from more than 2000 complaints it receives each year from California and several other western states, said EEOC district director Joan Ehrlich. In other cases, it issues a ``right to sue'' letter and employees can pursue their own lawsuits in civil court. ``We look at the code words: who's stating them, tone of voice, do they mean it in a derogatory fashion?'' said Maxion about the cases the agency pursues. We have to look at the context.'' ***and the rest*** Why is it COMPLAINING when you POINT OUT something WRONG and there are MEASURES to DEAL with IT?