A former professional body builder and personal trainer manager won her $11.25 million employment lawsuit after a jury agreed that she had been the target of rampant racism and sexism. While the case is out of New York City, NY, our Los Angeles employment lawyers recognize that such problems are pervasive throughout the fitness industry.
It’s no secret that the racial and gender diversity in many elite health clubs becomes slimmer the higher up the ladder you go. Although harmful stereotypes of the “Black athletic archetype” are deeply rooted in the U.S., it’s also given rise to the racist presumption that the only “acceptable” place for these displays is on a sports playing field. (Even then, we were well into the 20th Century before most sporting events were open to Black competitors.)
Private gyms started to gain popularity in the 1970s and 1980s – largely in the suburbs. But even if technically open to all people, those of color were underrepresented thanks to systemic redlining; they simply weren’t living in the areas where the gyms were opening. We started to see some expansion of diversity with the introduction of more ethnic fitness programs, such as Zumba, Yoga, Tae Bo, and Hip Hop dancing. But those programs still skew heavily white in many areas – both in terms of membership and employment.
This brings us to Equinoix, a luxury gym on the Upper East Side of New York City, where the plaintiff, a Black woman, was employed for less than a year, 2018 to 2019.
According to The New York Times, the company alleges plaintiff was fired for being late dozens of times during the course of her employment. She, however, alleges that was merely pretext. During her employment, she said she was subjected to a hostile work environment, and was ultimately wrongfully terminated on the basis of her race and gender.
She noted that in coastal cities, personal training can be done without a college degree (most obtain some form of certification), but earn upwards of $75 hourly. This can make it an attractive prospect for people of color who may not have the generational wealth to easily afford a college degree in something like sports medicine. The problem, she said, is that the management structure is largely white and male.
It was the management, she said, that supported her subordinates (one in particular) who allegedly refused to accept her position of authority, repeatedly calling her lazy, making vulgar comments about Black female bodies, expressing a hope of getting Black employees fired, and erroneously referring to one Black colleague as autistic as a means of denigrating him. In one instance, her subordinate demanded she stand by him near the exit so that he could make a pass at a young Black woman gym member as she was leaving, reasoning that his chances at landing a date were better if he had another Black person standing next to him. She refused.
In another situation, a customer called and asked specifically for a white personal trainer. She explained that such a request could open the company to potential liability and would need to be handled by a supervisor – who she assumed would deny the request and tell the customer it was inappropriate. Instead, the request was granted. When she complained, nothing was done. The plaintiff, however, received a disciplinary warning for lateness that same day. Her second disciplinary action just happened to be on the same day she brought the issue to human resources. She was fired three months after that.
Although the plaintiff didn’t deny she was late for work sometimes, the jury was presented evidence that the company routinely allowed tardiness to slide with employees. Few faced consequences for showing up 15 to 30 minutes late. This, combined with the fact that those disciplinary actions just happened to be on the dates she complained about racial discrimination, prompted plaintiff to allege pretext.
In their appeal, attorneys for the employer didn’t argue that offensive comments were made by the plaintiff’s subordinate, but rather that these were too few to amount to a hostile work environment. Furthermore, they argued that whatever emotional distress plaintiff suffered while working at the fitness center wasn’t serious enough to warrant the amount of money she received for it. Whether that appeal will go anywhere remains to be seen.
As longtime Los Angeles employment lawyers, we remain committed to fiercely advocating for the rights and best interests of marginalized workers. We know how hard many of them have had to struggle just to be treated fairly – and we don’t want them fighting for justice alone.
Contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Newport Beach, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 714-937-2020.
She Said Equinox Fired Her for Being a Black Woman. A Jury Agreed. May 26, 2023, By Giania Bellafante, The New York Times
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