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Founders Manager Claims in Discrimination Lawsuit Deposition He Didn’t Know Employee He Fired Was Black

Michigan’s largest brewery is facing renewed backlash after new details emerged in a racial discrimination lawsuit

A man walks up the path to Founders Brewing Company’s Detroit brew pub on a sunny afternoon.
Founders Brewing Company opened in Detroit in 2017.
Michelle and Chris Gerard
Brenna Houck is a Cities Manager for the Eater network. She previously edited Eater Detroit and reported for Eater. You can follow her on the internet at @brennahouck.

Michigan’s largest beer maker Founders Brewing Company is facing renewed scrutiny arising from an ongoing racial discrimination lawsuit. A former employee, Tracy Evans, filed the complaint last fall alleging that the brewery failed to adequately address its toxic, racist work environment and ultimately fired him for raising concerns.

Evans, a black employee who worked at both the Detroit and Grand Rapids locations, claims in the suit that Founders inadequately addressed racist behavior among its workers, including multiple incidents of employees using racial slurs. Evans also described “blatantly racist” behavior by management including allegations that the upstairs management printer at the Grand Rapids sites was labeled the “white guy printer” while the ground floor, general employee printer was labeled the “black guy printer.”

According to the filing, Evans also claims he was passed over for promotions, despite having greater seniority and a better record of conduct than the two Caucasian employees who were ultimately hired. Evans alleges that in 2018, he was eventually terminated for filing a complaint with human resources. Attorneys for Founders maintain that Evans was fired not because of his race, but because of poor job performance.

On Monday, Metro Times published a transcript from a deposition conducted by Evans’ attorney with Founders’ Detroit general manager Dominic Ryan. In the exchange Ryan, who fired Evans, claims he didn’t know Evans was black.

Evans tells Eater by phone on Tuesday that he sees Ryan’s statement in the deposition is a symptom of a larger issue in conversations about race. “He just displayed what is part of the larger picture and that is the blind eye towards racism. The, ‘I don’t see color,’” he says. “How can you as a person, a company, a corporation, an individual — how can you understand and have sympathy or empathy for the things that minority people of color or women go through at your establishment, if you can’t even admit and can’t even acknowledge and know that these people are minorities?”

Evans says in an interview that it took a long time to get up the courage to speak out in his workplace about things he felt were wrong and that his lawsuit is about helping empower others to do the same. “People of color and women who are put in these positions, you very rarely want to speak out because you always feel like you are going against the grain, and you always feel like you will be singled out, and you always feel like your job is at risk, your reputation is at risk,” he says.

Evans says he felt it was his responsibility to say something to HR, but was discouraged when the company didn’t seem to take his concerns seriously and eventually pushed him out for questioning the culture. “Enough was enough,” he says. “I don’t know that I could look at myself everyday in the mirror knowing that not only did I not speak out for myself in my situation, but I didn’t speak out to help protect others past, present, and future.”

Ryan’s exchange with Evans’ attorney Jack Schulz involves a series of questions regarding race, in which Ryan avoids using the word “black.” When Schulz asked whether Ryan knows if Barack Obama, Kwame Kilpatrick, or Michael Jordan are black, Ryan responds to each question by stating he’s never met them. The full transcript is below:

Evans’ Attorney, Jack Schulz: When did you first meet Tracy Evans?

Founders manager Dominic Ryan: 2011, 2012. We had mutual friends before working there, so …

Schulz: OK, So you knew Tracy prior to his employment at Founders?

Ryan: We met a few times, yes.

Schulz: OK, are you aware Tracy is Black?

Ryan: What do you mean by that?

Schulz: Are you aware Tracy is African-American?

Ryan: I’m not sure of his lineage so I can’t answer that.

Schulz: Alright. Are you aware that Tracy is a man of color?

Ryan: What do you mean by that?

Schulz: No? Do you know … You don’t know what it means for someone to be a white person or a Black person?

Ryan: I’m asking for clarification.

Schulz: You don’t need any. I can promise you that. We’ll keep the record as is. Someone’s skin color. A white …

Ryan: So that’s what you’re referring to?

Schulz: Yeah. Oh, yeah, yeah.

Ryan: OK. Yes, I know the difference in skin tone.

Schulz: Are you able to identify individuals by their skin tone?

Ryan: What do you mean “identify”?

Schulz: I mean have you ever looked at Tracy Evans in your entire life? Have you? That’s a … that’s a genuine question.

Founders Attorney: Objection. Argumentative.

Founders Attorney: You can answer.

Ryan: Yes.

Schulz: And did you ever realize that Tracy’s skin [is] Black?

Ryan: That’s not … I mean, is his skin different from mine? Yes.

Schulz: How?

Ryan: What do you mean “how”? It’s a different color.

Schulz: And what is the difference of that color?

Ryan: It’s darker.

Schulz: And that means?

Founders Attorney: Objection. Vague question.

Schulz: I mean, we could … This could be a one-sentence answer, you know. So by your … I guess your testimony is you have no idea if Tracy is a minority, if he’s African-American?

Ryan: I don’t know Tracy’s lineage, so I can’t speculate on whether he’s … if he’s from Africa or not.

Schulz: What do you mean lineage, from Africa?

Ryan: No. I mean, like, I don’t know his DNA.

Schulz: Have you ever met Black people who aren’t from Africa?

Ryan: Excuse me?

Schulz: Have you ever met a Black person born in America?

Ryan: Yes.

Schulz: And you were able … Have you ever met a Black person who didn’t tell you they were Black?

Ryan: Can you rephrase that?

Schulz: Is Barack Obama Black?

Founders Attorney: Objection.

Schulz: To your knowledge?

Ryan: I’ve never met Barack Obama so I don’t …

Schulz: So you don’t know if Barack Obama is Black? What about Michael Jordan? Do you know if Michael Jordan is Black?

Founders Attorney: Objection

Ryan: I’ve never met him.

Schulz: So you don’t know him? What about Kwame Kilpatrick?

Ryan: Never met him.

Schulz: To your knowledge, was Kwame Kilpatrick Black?

Ryan: I …

Schulz: You don’t know?

Ryan: I don’t know.

Following publication of the transcripts on Monday, Founders’ attorney Patrick M. Edsenga of Miller Johnson released a full copy of a statement provided to the Metro Times reporter Tom Perkins. The response denies that race or retaliation played into Evans’ termination as events and promotions manager at Founders Detroit’s taproom. Edsenga says the legal team says plans to present evidence to the court soon in an effort to get the case dismissed.

Please see below for a full statement regarding the recent Detroit Metro Times article provided by our legal counsel. The author chose not to include our full statement and, as a result, we are opting to share it with you.

Mr. Perkins,

Thank you for reaching out to Founders before publishing your column. Founders will soon be providing its full response to Mr. Evans’ claims when it files a motion to dismiss the case in its entirety. This motion will include documentary proof that neither Mr. Evans’ race nor retaliation played any part in Founders’ decision to end Mr. Evans’ employment. I would ask that you reserve judgment or comment on this case until you actually see the evidence presented by the parties.

In the event that you will not, I understand that a person unfamiliar with most of the facts in this case, and a person unfamiliar with the obligations that individuals are under when they give deposition testimony, might perceive Mr. Ryan’s statement as noteworthy. It is not. First, as I doubt you’re aware, Mr. Evans himself has testified – unequivocally and under oath – that Mr. Ryan is not racist and was his friend; so whatever point Mr. Evans is trying to make by leaking deposition testimony to you is undone by his own words. Second, this testimony is not Founders’ defense in this case as you allege. Founders evaluated and decided to terminate Mr. Evans based only on his job performance. Mr. Evans’ poor job performance will be apparent when Founders files its upcoming motion. Third, through this testimony, Mr. Ryan was simply saying that he does not assume anything about individuals’ race or ethnicity unless they tell him that information. While it might be acceptable to speculate about this type of thing in casual conversation, Mr. Ryan was not having a casual conversation. He was under oath when he made these statements. As all deponents are instructed, Mr. Ryan was directed not to guess, assume or speculate in his deposition. This is the reason for his answer.

The fact that Mr. Evans is selectively leaking this type of information to you indicates that, unlike Founders, he has no evidence to support his position in this case. Founders looks forward to its day in court, and, now that discovery has closed, it is more confident than ever that it will prevail.

Patrick M. Edsenga
Attorney at Law
Miller Johnson

Now a year into the lawsuit, Evans tells Eater in an interview that he wishes that Founders had simply acknowledged the problem, apologized, and created a path towards improving the brewery’s work culture. “I have tried to reason with Founders and they continue to want to deny these things and look at it from their own perspective,” he says. “This isn’t just about Founders. This is about a worldly issue that continues to happen all the time.”

Tracy Evans, a man with a beard, smiles at the camera wearing a hat, round-framed sunglasses, and a black shirt with pink writing reading “It’s Not Right.”
Tracy Evans, a former events and promotions manager at Founders Detroit’s taproom, plans to start an organization called It’s Not Right.
Leigh Ann Cobb Photography [Courtesy Photo]

The deposition have ignited new anger in the Michigan beer community. At least one Detroit brewer, Eastern Market Brewing Co., has announced plans to boycott this weekend’s Detroit Fall Beer Festival at Eastern Market where Founders is a participant. Dianna Stampfler, a publicist for the Michigan Brewers Guild, responded to requests by Eater for comment in an email on Wednesday, stating: “Occasionally we have brewery members drop out of a festival, and while that is unfortunate, the celebration this weekend will be about all the great Michigan breweries and beers that are present.”

Evans says that while consumers and fellow brewers are free to take whatever action they feel is necessary, he isn’t calling for the cancelation of Founders. “I by no means want the friends that I love and still hold dear to my heart, that continue to work at Founders, to not be able to afford to pay their mortgage or pay for their child’s braces or sports equipment or not make a living. That is not in my agenda,” he says. “You will never hear those words, as far as ‘boycott Founders,’ ever come out of my mouth.”

The lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial in October 2020. In the meantime, Evans says he’s focusing his efforts on developing an organization called It’s Not Right to help advocate for people who’ve been harassed or discriminated against in their workplace. Evans says that he plans to start building funding for that project soon and invites people who need help to email the organization at “It’s time to start saying something,” he says.

Update, 9:59 a.m., October 23, 2019: This story has been updated with a statement on the boycott by EMBC from the Michigan Brewers Guild.

Founders Brewing Manager Claims He Didn’t Know Black Employee Is Black [MT]
Founders Brewing Co. Facing Backlash for Deposition in Racial Discrimination Case [Freep]
Statement Regarding Metro Times Article [Founders]
Former Founders Brewing Co. Employee Files Lawsuit Alleging Racial Discrimination [ED]
All Beer Coverage [ED]
All Lawsuits Coverage [ED]
All Founders Coverage [ED]

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