A former senior vice president of U.S. Bancorp filed a $9 million racial discrimination suit Thursday against the bank and three white employees.
The complaint, submitted to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, accuses the Minneapolis-based bank of libel and federal and state civil rights violations for demoting and firing Felando M. Johnson, who is African-American. Two supervisors and a human resources employee are also named in the suit.
U.S. Bancorp denied the charges.
"These allegations are without merit, and we're going to defend against this claim vigorously," said Joyce Peppin, a spokeswoman. "We're committed to a policy of nondiscrimination and equal employment."
According to the suit, Mr. Johnson was an "outstanding leader" who drew lucrative government purchase card contracts to the bank but was punished for defending himself and other black employees against prejudice.
Mr. Johnson said he opened the Washington office of the bank's government purchase card division in 1994 and increased its sales revenue tenfold within four years. He earned $238,000 in salary and commissions in 1997. In 1998 he received U.S. Bancorp's President's Award, according to the suit.
But when Mr. Johnson began to question the allegedly different treatment of white and black employees who had resigned, his supervisors began to retaliate, the suit claims.
One of the supervisors is accused of humiliating Mr. Johnson by calling him a "super black man" and referring to him and another black employee as "brothers in the 'hood." The suit accuses the same person of undermining Mr. Johnson's authority with subordinates and government contacts.
Ultimately, the suit claims, Mr. Johnson was demoted to a lower-paying position and replaced with a "lesser-qualified white employee." When his efforts to gain relief from within the bank failed, the suit says, Mr. Johnson filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and urged the Department of Labor to prohibit the bank from obtaining further government contracts.
In response, the suit alleges, U.S. Bancorp offered Mr. Johnson a choice: a further demotion or dismissal. Mr. Johnson refused the demotion and was fired Feb. 4, he said.
"It's blatant retaliation to fire somebody within two or three weeks of his filing an EEOC charge," said his attorney, Alan R. Kabat of Bernabei & Katz.
U.S. Bancorp's Ms. Peppin denied that Mr. Johnson was fired. "The way we look at it, he chose to leave," she said. "It was his decision."
Mr. Johnson decided to file suit when settlement negotiations over the EEOC complaint fell through, his attorney said. He is seeking $9 million in compensatory and punitive damages, plus legal fees and reinstatement to his former position.