George Richards, the man who found a noose hanging in his locker at the United Riverhead Terminal in late 2015, has filed a lawsuit against the company, his former bosses and the Town of Riverhead for denying him his 14th Amendment right to be free from racial discrimination and for being retaliated against after reporting the incident.
On Nov. 29, 2015, Mr. Richards entered the URT lunchroom and found a hangman’s noose on his coat hanger. He then reported the incident to his supervisor, Dan Hand, who in turn reported it to terminal manager John Lindahl and was told that a proper investigation would take place. Both Mr. Hand and Mr. Lindahl are named as defendants in the lawsuit.
“We’re here to protect Mr. Richards’ rights, to make sure he’s comfortable in the work environment and that this incident is not swept under the rug,” Annette Totten, Mr. Richards’ attorney, said Monday.
One week later, on Dec. 5, Mr. Richards went to Riverhead police to file harassment charges.
In a previous interview with the News-Review, he said only URT employees had access to the lunchroom.
In February 2016, Mr. Richards called the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission to express concern about the incident, stating that he was the only African American employed at URT. He “was concerned with the way the defendants had been handling the case and the treatment he was receiving from some of his supervisors in retaliation for him having complained about the noose,” the suit reads.
The lawsuit also states that he had never been interviewed by any investigators or informed of their findings.
URT owner John Catsimatidis, who is not named individually in the lawsuit, said in an interview with the News-Review that he had hired a private investigator to look into the incident. The investigator later reported that it was caused by an unrelated retirement joke in the lunchroom earlier that day. When an unnamed employee was asked what his plans were after retirement, he reportedly stated that he would “hang himself,” which led to his coworkers tying a noose.
Mr. Catsimatidis said in a letter to the News-Review Friday that the lawsuit was “baseless” and the company “will fully cooperate with the Town of Riverhead in its legal defense.”
He reiterated that the cause of the complaint was a practical joke played on a retiring employee at a retirement party which Mr. Richards did not attend. A “non-emplyee” was responsible for the joke, he said. He added that Mr. Richards had said he wanted an apology from the “non-employee, which he received.”
Mr. Richards alleges he was assigned to duties below his work grade that his white counterparts on equal levels did not have to do. He claims he was also called names such as “George from the jungle” and “the doorman,” the lawsuit states.
In May 2017, he sustained a work-related injury and was allegedly given the wrong paperwork to fill out by Mr. Lindahl, so he could not receive workers compensation. He was injured again in March 2018 and was able to receive workers compensation, mostly because Mr. Lindahl no longer worked for the company, the suit said.
Mr. Richards had been working at the facility since 2004 as a platform operator, according to the lawsuit, and URT purchased the company in 2012. He was promoted in July 2013 to lead platform operator.
“The facts speak for themselves with respect to Mr. Richards’ employment at URT,” Mr. Catsimatidis wrote. “As he has acknowledged, he was promoted to lead platform operator, and he has been given two raises since his promotion. Also, his workmen’s compensation claims were processed by URT as required by law, and he received the compensation legally due to him.”
Mr. Richards is demanding a trial by jury and emotional, punitive and compensatory damages, including attorneys’ fees.
Riverhead town attorney Robert Kozakiewicz declined to comment.
Editor’s Note: This was story was updated with additional comment from John Catsimatidis.