The sole African-American director within Delaware’s Department of Insurance’s has faced racial and sexual discrimination and harassment while working for Insurance Commissioner Trinidad Navarro, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court.
Fleur McKendall alleges Navarro touched her hair without her consent and made inappropriate comments about her appearance. She said she also was singled out and wrongly accused of writing a letter criticizing the deputy commissioner.
McKendall said she reported the alleged abuse, but nothing was done to investigate the situation. She said after speaking to the press a year ago, the department retaliated against her and attempted to persuade her to leave her job.
“No one deserves to be subjected to the kind of harassment discrimination and retaliation I have been subjected to,” McKendall said during a news conference. “I believe I have a duty to speak out in an effort to end a culture that seeks to silence victims of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, and so employes can speak out without being punished for bringing their concerns to light.”
The lawsuit, which names Navarro and department staff, alleges that two days after the commissioner took office, his Chief of Staff Stuart Snyder asked McKendall’s supervisor about her job performance–stating he heard she was unqualified for her position. The lawsuit alleges McKendall was targeted because she’s African American, and that she had a record of high performance.
When McKendall met Navarro, the commissioner touched her cornrows without her consent and made comments about her height and the length of her heels.
Deputy Commissioner Mitchell Crane also made unwarranted comments about her appearance, grabbed her hand and said her nails were “interesting,” according to the lawsuit.
“Would they be touching her hair if she were not a Black woman? Would they be grabbing her nails and saying, ‘That’s interesting’ if she were not a Black woman?” said Angeli Murthy, one of the attorneys on the case.
In 2017, a negative letter about Crane reached Navarro’s desk. The lawsuit alleges Crane accused McKendall of writing the letter because it contained the phrase “off the chain,” to which he asserted was a phrase used only by Blacks.
McKendall said she was singled out and was the only employee whose office was searched and she was unfairly interrogated.
She complained to human resources and nothing was done to address her concerns, the lawsuit alleges. After filing a complaint to the EEOC, McKendall was excluded from formal and informal work meetings. In addition, Crane sought negative feedback about McKendall from her subordinates, the lawsuit alleges.
The department also tried to persuade her to accept paid leave or a placement in a different department. McKendall refused.
The lawsuit also claims after McKendall went to the press about her story, the department forced her to work in the office, even though she had worked remotely for one year due to a reasonable disability.
“She did exactly what she was supposed to do; she reported that treatment through the proper channels and rather than this report sparking a fair and impartial investigation and appropriate remedy, Ms. Mckendall found herself the target of concerted efforts which appeared designed to affect her departure from a job she loved at the Department of Insurance. She’s still there. She will not be driven from the job she loves,” Murthy said.
Navarro said he can’t comment on personnel issues.
“I can say with certainty, however, that the Department respects and values all of our employees,” he said in a statement emailed to WHYY. “As the Insurance Commissioner and the leader of this Department, I do not and will not tolerate harassment, discrimination, or retaliation of any kind against any Department employee.”
Fleur and her attorneys and the NAACP say they want institutional change in the department, so employees feel safe when reporting wrongdoing and are treated with respect.
“Implicit bias in the workplace is just as devastating to communities of color. For far too long, women of color have been targeted for discrimination, mistreatment, and harassment,” said Ben Crump, another attorney on the case.
“We’re here to say we’re not going to let them intimidate her and let them think she’s by herself–we’re all here together standing up against discrimination based on race and gender.”