White Colleague Wore Gorilla Suit to ‘Mock’ Black General Sales Manager Who Was ‘Exceptional’ In His Role at Missouri Dealership, Lawsuit Alleges

Posted by Yasmeen Freightman | Published on: April 5, 2024.  Atlanta Black Star/News

Reprinted by Imanche Sunday, April 16, 2024

An automotive dealer that is being sued by a former Black employee in Illinois is facing yet another discrimination lawsuit, this time from two of its former Black general sales managers in Missouri.

Darwin Cunningham and Justin Norvell, two Black men who worked as general sales managers for the Ed Napleton Automotive Group, filed a lawsuit against their former employer last December.

Cunningham and Norvell were employed at the Napleton Mid Rivers dealership in St. Peters, Missouri, until October 2022.

Norvell was promoted from salesperson to sales manager in 2017 and then to general sales manager just two years later. Cunningham advanced that same ladder, becoming a sales manager in 2019 before being promoted to general sales manager in 2022.

By all accounts, the pair exhibited and maintained “exceptional performance” records at the dealership, increasing sales and outperforming other general sales managers within the Napleton Automotive Group, according to the suit.

Yet, their former employer “treated them differently and less well” than white employees.

The complaint cites one instance in 2021 when a white salesperson showed up to work wearing a gorilla suit and “mocked” Norvell. When Norvell reported it to his superiors, the company failed to take “corrective action.”

Additionally, while Cunningham and Norvell were still sales managers, Norvell was only paid 1.87 percent of monthly gross sales and finance for the dealership and Cunningham only 2 percent compared to white sales managers who were paid 3.5%.

As a general manager, the petition notes that Norvell was only paid 2.5 percent of monthly gross sales and finance, while his white counterparts were paid 4.5 percent.

Cunningham’s and Norvell’s workplace culture began to change after July 2022, when Napleton Automotive Group named a new pair of regional managers, both white men, who oversaw dealerships in the St. Louis region.

After Todd Flowers and Don Vannatta were appointed, they “began a targeted campaign to create what they described as a ‘culture change’ at Napleton Mid Rivers Kia,” the suit states.

Vannatta was once overheard saying, “We want to keep North County North County, and St. Peters St. Peters,” referencing the racial makeup of the employees at dealerships in both areas, according to the complaint. North County has a majority African-American demographic, while St. Peters’ residents are mostly white.

Flowers and Vannatta hired and promoted only white salespeople at the dealership where Cunningham and Norvell worked. Vannatta even rejected one of Norvell’s recommendations to promote a Black salesperson. The managers also imposed new dress codes “selectively targeting” Black employees that included a ban on athletic shoes, according to the suit.

Then, without warning, Flowers and Vannatta fired Cunningham and Norvell on October 24, 2022, citing alleged “performance issues,” despite the plaintiffs’ stellar track records, the plaintiffs claim.

Their supervisors “never disciplined, counseled, or warned” them about any “deficiencies in their performance” before they were fired even though the company has a policy to “use progressive discipline with employees who had performance problems,” the complaint states.

Conversely, the company would offer white managers whose “performance and conduct were less than acceptable, transfers and demotions, rather than to terminate them.”

The suit calls Napleton Automotive Group’s conduct “outrageous and undertaken willfully, wantonly, maliciously, with evil motive, and with reckless disregard and indifference for the rights.”

“By every measure, Justin Norvell and Darwin Cunningham were extraordinarily successful managers of the Napleton dealership where they were employed,” attorney Mary Anne Sedey, who represents the plaintiffs, told the Atlanta Black Star.

Sedey said when Napleton Automotive selected those new regional managers who embarked on a “culture change,” the apparent objective was “to replace these successful Black managers with white managers, based on the mistaken belief that since the area the dealership served was predominantly white, the store needed to be managed by white people.”

Cunningham and Norvell seek a jury trial to determine damages and injunctive relief.

The complaint was filed just two months after Andre Jennings, another Black salesperson who worked for one of the Napleton Automotive Group’s dealerships in Illinois, sued the company for racial discrimination.

In Jennings’ petition, he noted that his white managers would “casually and openly” call him the n-word regularly and that he was exposed to “an ongoing, racially hostile culture where frequent racial slurs, comments, stereotypes, and jokes saturated the workplace.”

Ed Napleton Automotive Group had already been penalized for discrimination before these suits emerged. The company was ordered to pay a $10 million settlement in April 2022 for sneaking illegal junk fees onto the bills of its Black customers.

One thought on “White Colleague Wore Gorilla Suit to ‘Mock’ Black General Sales Manager Who Was ‘Exceptional’ In His Role at Missouri Dealership, Lawsuit Alleges

  • April 16, 2024 at 2:00 pm

    The revelations of discriminatory practices at Ed Napleton Automotive Group have sent shockwaves through the industry, casting a dark shadow over the company’s reputation. The $10 million settlement in April 2022 served as a stark reminder of the consequences of such unethical behavior. As the lawsuits continue to unfold, the automotive community is left grappling with the troubling reality of systemic discrimination within a once-trusted institution. The road to redemption for Ed Napleton Automotive Group will undoubtedly be long and arduous, as it confronts the deep-seated issues that have tarnished its standing in the eyes of both customers and critics alike.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.