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Former manager sues CPI Security alleging unlawful retaliation and 'culture of racism'

CPI sign
Jodie Valade

A former high-ranking manager has filed a lawsuit against CPI Security and its CEO, Kenneth Gill, alleging she was unlawfully fired after raising concerns about the company's racial climate in the summer of 2020.

The 18-page lawsuit filed in North Carolina Superior Court on Tuesday also details a litany of comments and actions allegedly made by Gill and other senior staff that created a "culture of racism" during the manager's time at the company, including that she was told not hire people with dreadlocks, and the allegation that Gill once told a deeply-tanned employee at a meeting "if you get any darker, we'll have to seat you at the back of the bus."

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for CPI said the company "adamantly" denies the allegations in the lawsuit, and noted that the company was "42% racially diverse." However, the spokesperson said the company would not comment further because the litigation was pending.

Public outcry against CPI in 2020

The lawsuit was filed by former Call Center Director Kelley Phelps, who was the highest-ranking Black manager at CPI Security, where she had worked for more than 20 years, before she was fired in August 2020.

According to the lawsuit, Phelps was among many people "deeply" offended by an email Gill sent to a local activist who was protesting the death of George Floyd in June 2020. In the email, Gill said the activist, Jorge Millares, should "spend time in a more productive way," like focusing "on the black on black crime and senseless killing of our young men by other young men."

The email was widely reported on by local news outlets, and prompted major corporate customers of CPI, including the Charlotte Hornets, Carolina Panthers, Bojangles and the YMCA, to drop CPI as a vendor.

Many CPI employees were also upset, and staged a walk out and threatened to quit en masse, according to the suit. Many customers also called to cancel their service contracts with the company.

Phelps said she was asked by senior staff to help quell the anger and persuade employees and customers to stay with the company, which she did, despite her own reservations with Gill's comments.

The suit said she was also asked by senior staff to help craft and review the company's public response to the uproar. Phelps said she was shocked at one point when reviewing a proposed statement to The Charlotte Observer that used the term "colored people" to describe Black Americans.

According to the suit, Phelps also became increasingly disturbed by what she perceived as a dismissive response to the public outcry from Gill, who allegedly told her during one meeting "This is just the next story. It'll blow over."

'Culture of racism'

During this time, Phelps said she also learned of other instances of alleged racial insensitivity involving Gill, including an allegation from another employee who said Gill had told a deeply-tanned manager at a meeting prior to the summer of 2020, "If you get any darker, we'll have to seat you at the back of the bus."

Phelps said she also previously tried to discuss racial insensitivity concerns with Gill after two employee posted overtly racist memes online, but Gill allegedly brushed off her concerns, saying that Phelps and Black people in general had "come a long way." At the same meeting, Phelps alleges, Gill criticized President Barack Obama for failing to "teach black men not to run out on their children," and Charlotte City Council member Braxton Winston for not "focusing on real problems like crime."

The suit also alleges that when Phelps arrived at the company, customers could explicitly request a white service technician, and although Phelps told employees not to honor such requests and pushed for the company to enact a policy banning employees from doing so, Gill decided against enacting such a policy in the summer of 2020, which the suit called a "passive" expression of support for the racist practice.

Phelps also alleges that a senior manager directed her not to hire people with dreadlocks, and she alleges that the company had a longstanding practice of running credit checks on customers in geographic locations that had disproportionately larger Black populations, such as west Charlotte and parts of Henderson, Durham, Greensboro and Oxford, before sending out field consultants.

Resignation and firing

Phelps tendered her resignation in July 2020, but other managers convinced her to stay, according to the suit, and instead she was invited to meet with company investigators to discuss the company's racial climate and ways the company could improve.

One of the company investigators was former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney, who had recently been hired by the company as a community and government relations consultant.

Although she was told her conversations with the investigators would remain private, Phelps said she later learned from another manager that the concerns she raised during the July 28 meeting were shared with Gill and other senior staff, including her concern that Gill and others did not deserve high marks for racial sensitivity.

On Aug. 18, 2020, Phelps was abruptly fired, according to the suit, and she was told the decision had come directly from Gill.

Attorneys for Phelps argue in the lawsuit that the firing was both discriminatory and retaliatory, and violated state law and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The suit also notes that Phelps was replaced several months later with an external hire who was a white man.

Phelps is represented in the suit by employment attorneys Nina Pirrotti, Joshua Goodbaum, Elisabeth Lee, and Faith Herndon.

The attorneys write in the suit that they plan to ask for a trial by jury, and will seek lost wages and other damages for Phelps. A hearing date has not been set.

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Updated: November 19, 2021 at 11:59 AM EST
This story has been updated to clarify that Kenneth Gill's email in June 2020 was directed at activist Jorge Millares, and not at people protesting the death of George Floyd in general.
Nick de la Canal is a reporter for WFAE covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal