Lawsuit Claims Racism, Sexism Rampant at Milford Car Dealership

Oct 1 2018

As it appeared in the Connecticut Law Tribune

The plaintiff claims she was subjected to constant sexism by the owner of the dealership.

By Robert Storace

The former marketing director of a Milford-based Toyota dealership has filed a federal lawsuit claiming the owner repeatedly made sexist comments and sexually propositioned her.

In her lawsuit filed Sept. 24 in U.S. District Court in the District of Connecticut, Gloria Powers said she was subjected to a “brutal work environment” at Colonial Toyota under the leadership of Robert Crabtree Jr. The lawsuit also states that Crabtree was openly hostile to minorities. Powers is white.

The lawsuit says Powers, who worked at Colonial for six years up until she took a federal Family and Medical Leave Act hiatus in March, was subjected “to a barrage of sexist and racist comments about female and black employees and repeatedly ridiculed for being an older woman and a cancer survivor. The ugliness of Mr. Crabtree’s rhetoric was matched only by his conduct.”

That conduct includes allegations that Crabtree sexually propositioned her and engaged in sexual misconduct, repeatedly used racial slurs in the dealership, and required Powers to perform menial duties despite being the marketing director, according to the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, Crabtree called Powers from the Milford Police Department in the middle of the night demanding she drive to the police station. Powers was told Crabtree was arrested for several offenses, including driving under the influence, the lawsuit said. Crabtree instructed Powers to drive him home since his car was impounded.

Once at the house, the lawsuit said, “Crabtree then pulled Ms. Powers down onto the couch and begged her to stay with him through the night. He was holding her so tightly that, despite her efforts to escape his grasp, she was unable to move. The more she tried to pull away, the tighter he held her, pressing her into the corner of the couch.” Crabtree, the suit continues, asked Powers if she wanted to have sex with him.

“She was horrified,” the complaint said. Eventually, Crabtree passed out and Powers was able to leave, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit says Crabtree, who has been the owner since the early 1990s, “repeatedly complained that n—— are always a problem and that there were too many n—— working at Colonial Toyota, and that the dealership needed to ‘add more cream to the coffee’ by hiring more white employees.” The dealership has about 148 employees.

After terminating his executive assistant a few months after Powers was hired in 2012, the lawsuit claims Crabtree “demanded that Ms. Powers be at his beck and call to perform a number of personal tasks, including ordering his meals; purchasing his favorite brand of pretzels; picking up his dry cleaning; helping him find a new residence after his wife asked for a divorce; buying tampons for his daughter; and, one on occasion, picking him up from Milford Hospital after he had been admitted for intoxication.”

Powers took a medical leave of absence on March 24 due to anxiety and panic attacks, according to the lawsuit. The next day, “all of Ms. Powers’ access to Colonial Toyota was shut off.”

Even though Powers, 65, was told by a vendor that he had heard that she was no longer employed at the dealership, the company said though its attorney three weeks later that Powers had not been fired. Powers, who filed joint Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities and Equal Employment Opportunities Commission complaints in April after she filed for FMLA, has since gotten a job at another dealership in the state, according to her attorney, Nina Pirrotti, a partner with New Haven-based Garrison, Levin-Epstein, Fitzgerald & Pirrotti.

Pirrotti, who is seeking unspecified back pay, front pay, compensatory and punitive damages, said cases where the owner is the alleged harasser present “unique challenges for employees because they do not know where to turn. Either they put up with it or they leave. It is not a choice an employee should have to make.”

The lawsuit includes claims for a hostile work environment on the basis of sex in violation of Title VIII and the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act, and retaliation in violation of Title VII and the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Crabtree referred all comment Monday to Thomas Decea, his general counsel. Decea is a partner with New York-based Fishman Decea & Feldman.

“The employees [of the dealership] consist of a divergent group of individuals who are hired based solely on the merit of their ability irrespective of age, race, gender or creed,” Decea said in an email Monday. “While we have not had an opportunity to review, let alone analyze, the allegations of the complaint led by Gloria Powers, the complaints she articulated to Colonial after she abandoned her employment were taken seriously and processed in accordance with Colonial’s employee manual and the law; the allegations were determined to be baseless and for these reasons the lawsuit will be vigorously defended.

“I hasten to add that a complaint has been made by Colonial to the Connecticut Bar Association against the law firm representing Ms. Powers based upon what is alleged to be the fabrication of evidence upon which the claims are based,” Decea added.

According to Pirrotti, Crabtree “lodged a baseless claim with the Statewide Grievance Committee” against her, which was dismissed on Aug. 7. Michael Bowler, statewide bar counsel for the Statewide Grievance Committee, did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

According to the New York Law Journal, a New York judge in 2007 ordered court supervision for Decea over “objectionable conduct” toward female opposing counsel, who he said had a “cute little thing going on” during deposition. According to deposition transcripts, the New York Law Journal said Decea also called Michelle Rice of Arkin Kaplan & Rice “hon” and “girl,” and asked her why she was not wearing a wedding ring.

Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Carol Edmead said Decea’s behavior reflected a “lack of civility, good manners and common courtesy.” Decea told the publication he worked to treat all fellow lawyers with respect. He said the “cute little thing” remark was taken out of context, and said there were statements in the transcript attributed to him that he never made.

Toyota’s media department, based in Texas, said Colonial Toyota is an independent dealership.

“These alleged actions are inconsistent with our core values, and we do not condone the type of behavior detailed in this claim,” the company said, adding, it “does not hire, fire or direct the day-to-day activities of the dealership’s personnel, and it is not involved in matters concerning employees.”

Also working on the case with Pirrotti is colleague Joshua Goodbaum.

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