SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) - Home Depot targeted gay male workers for termination to cut costs in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, an ex-employee claims in court.
Hardy Housh aka Lex Housh sued Home Depot in Orange County Superior Court, seeking $100,000 for discrimination, sexual harassment and other counts.
Housh - who identifies as gay - says in his complaint that Home Depot devised a scheme to trim its payroll at the expense of older higher paid managers and male gay employees as a response to the economic calamity of the late 2000s.
"Home Depot was concerned with 'gay male' employees because of its perception that it would pay more medical benefits associated with HIV and AIDS viruses," Housh says in the complaint. "Also, Home Depot was concerned that it would have to pay costs associated with 'gay partners.' As of Jan. 1, 2012, Home Depot California made a decision to terminate all 'gay' employees because of the California Domestic Relationship Act. That legislation required employers to provide benefits to 'partners.'"
Housh registered his domestic partnership in 2011.
Lawmakers enacted the California Domestic Partner Rights and Responsibilities Act in 2003 and the law became operative on Jan. 1, 2005 - three years before the economic crisis. A different bill - the California Insurance Equality Act - prohibits insurers from treating domestic partners differently from heterosexual married couples, not the law Housh cites.
Housh says he worked for Home Depot for 25 years and was 57 years old when the home improvement chain fired him in February 2012. At that time he worked as an assistant manager at a store in Lemon Grove, Calif., according to the 70-page complaint.
Housh claims that in the early days of his employment, Home Depot created a "value wheel" guide to protect its employees from discrimination and wrongful termination. He adds that he relied on the value wheel and oral promises made to him by management and had no idea the retailer allegedly stopped adhering to those principles until after his termination.
The value wheel went out of the window, Housh claims, when the retailer conjured up ways to cut costs after the bottom fell out of the housing market beginning in 2007.
Home Depot began to target certain employees for lay-off in an attempt to meet a quota for reducing its workforce, Housh says. Management aimed at older employees and gay employees - whose higher salaries and insurance costs would cost the retailer profits - and embarked on a scheme to fill employee files with fake write-ups, according to Housh.
"During 2011, Housh was subjected to three admittedly false write-ups," the complaint states. "During February of 2012, Housh was subjected to an additional false write-up and was terminated without an opportunity to prove that it was based on false facts - that he trash-compacted a microwave oven in violation of hazmat rules."
Housh admits in his complaint that Home Depot placed him on a performance improvement plan, or PIP, in 2008 - three years before the allegedly false write-ups and his termination. However, he says that this was done to get him to quit.
When that did not work, Housh claims that Home Depot managers harassed him to force him out of the company. He cites one incident in 2011 in which defendant Rudy Peralta, a manager of a San Diego-area store, emailed him several sexually explicit pictures.
"The pictures included a large penis protruding from an uncooked turkey's stuffing hole, an African American posing in women's lingerie with his penis showing, the picture of a naked child with a man's head photo shopped onto the child's head, and the picture of a man's rear end with a large X over the same," the lawsuit claims.
Though Housh had kept his sexuality a secret at work, he says managers eventually learned the truth in 2011. The harassment increased accordingly, Housh claims.
"After learning that plaintiff was gay, defendant district manager Jeff Grooms increasingly tormented plaintiff by use of wrongful discipline (i.e., false write-ups that were backdated), ridicule during walkthroughs, outward physical conduct (i.e., ignoring plaintiff's suggestions and comments during management meetings; making improper sexual gestures with his hands and body when plaintiff was near him), encouraging and participating in false write-ups during 2011 and, when plaintiff would not quit, by terminating him with a false write-up," Housh states in his complaint. (Parentheses in complaint.)
The man claims that all of this began in October of 2011, almost immediately after he added his registered domestic partner to Home Depot's insurance plan.
Nothing in Housh's complaint indicates how he learned of Home Depot's alleged policy to terminate older and gay male employees, and he offers no proof that it was a corporate directive rather than the work of a few area managers. He makes no mention whether lesbian employees were also targeted for termination.
Nonprofit equality rights watchdog Human Rights Campaign gives Home Depot 75 out of 100 on its 2013 Corporate Equality Index. The retailer earned points for providing health and soft benefits to domestic partners, its diversity training program, LGBT-oriented philanthropy and having a diversity working group that includes LGBT issues.
Besides parent Home Depot USA and Home Depot California, Housh also names Peralta, Grooms and another manager, Bernard Powers, as defendants.
He is represented by Kevin Mirch of the Mirch Law Firm in San Diego.