Third Lawsuit In 5 Years Against Leprino Alleges Discrimination Of Hispanic Employees

<p>(Wikimedia Commons/Zeiler-Pennock Inc.)</p>
<p>A $3 billion company, Denver-based Leprino Foods controls 85 percent of the market for pizza cheese. </p>
Photo: Leprino Foods
A $3 billion company, Denver-based Leprino Foods controls 85 percent of the market for pizza cheese.

Leprino Foods, the Denver-based cheese giant, was sued again in federal court for alleged discrimination against a Hispanic worker at one of its Colorado facilities.

This is at least the third such lawsuit in the last five years for the largest maker of mozzarella in the world.

Leprino Foods declined to comment, citing a policy of not publicly addressing employment matters or active litigation.

In the latest case filed this month in U.S. District Court in Denver, Nicholas Donez, a foreman in the Whey Department at the company’s Ft. Morgan facility, said he was the victim of an unprovoked attack by Frank Levar, a white coworker. Levar was later convicted of assault, according to the lawsuit.

Donez claims he sustained serious injuries, and that he was terminated from Leprino about two weeks after he applied for workers’ compensation benefits.

Leprino said Donez had violated the company’s no tolerance workplace violence policy, according to the lawsuit. Donez argues he was merely trying to defend himself from the attack, and therefore did not violate company policy.

A white person was then hired to replace Donez as foreman, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit goes on to allege that Leprino “used its alleged workplace violence policy as a pretextual reason for its unlawful and intentional discrimination based on [Donez’s] race.”

Two other cases in recent years involved Leprino’s treatment of Hispanic workers.

In 2015, Dorothy Maes filed a discrimination case against the cheese company because of a hostile workplace at the company’s Greeley facility. Co-workers would verbally abuse Hispanics, African Americans and employees with disabilities. Maes claimed in legal filings that she was retaliated against when she tried to report the issues to human resources. The case went to a jury trial and Leprino won.

In another case, filed in 2016, Sylvia Jaramillo alleged that the company grossly underpaid her relative to white workers, that she was subjected to denigrating comments, and that she was passed over for coveted positions, “in accordance with [Leprino’s] longstanding ‘Caucasian preferred,’ ‘Hispanic deferred’ promotional, supervisory, and managerial customs, patterns, and practices,” the lawsuit stated. Jaramillo appears to have reached a settlement agreement with the company, but her lawyer couldn’t remember the details.

In 2012, Leprino signed a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Labor to settle separate discrimination allegations. The company was alleged to have used an entrance exam that effectively screened out Hispanic, Asian, and African American job seekers at a plant in California.