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WASHINGTON — A black former Defense Department worker has filed a discrimination lawsuit alleging her complaints about workplace harassment prompted one of her supervisors to hang a stuffed ape from a noose across from her desk.
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Mirlin Toomer, who worked at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency for six years, is seeking at least $300,000 in damages in the suit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Washington. The action names Defense Secretary Leon Panetta as defendant, but Toomer’s lawyer, Donald Temple, said the list of named defendants could expand.

A noose displayed before a black American is considered extremely offensive because the rope was used to lynch more than 3,000 black people during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Ken White, spokesman for the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, would not comment Thursday “on ongoing legal matters.” Panetta was traveling abroad Thursday and was not immediately available for comment. A Pentagon spokesman referred questions to the agency’s legislative liaison, who also did not comment.

Toomer, 45, was fired in September. Before that, her lawsuit states, she had compiled a record of commendations and awards over more than 20 years with the government, including six given last year.

In the lawsuit, Toomer traced her troubles to her complaints about colleague Mathew Estevez, who she said had stood behind her with a pair of scissors, threatened to cut her wig and said he wondered whether the hair would grow back. Toomer said she complained to her supervisor, Diane Stiger, who did nothing.

Toomer followed with a formal discrimination complaint but said in her suit no action was taken. Instead, the lawsuit states, Stiger bound the stuffed ape in rope and hung it near her office where Toomer could see it. The stuffed animal hung there for two weeks and was taken down only after Toomer and another black worker pointed it out to security officers.

“For black people, the lynch rope symbolizes the epitome of victimization of the Jim Crow era,” Temple said Thursday.

The lawsuit states that Toomer asked Stiger to remove the “monkey” but Stiger refused, saying the animal was an ape, not a monkey. She then said to Toomer, “Do you think of yourself as a monkey?” Toomer alleged in the lawsuit.

Toomer filed suit after several separate complaints to supervisors, human resources personnel, the Equal Employment Office, her agency’s director, police and one of her senators.

“I am urging your intervention,” Toomer wrote to geospatial intelligence director Letitia Long, the lawsuit states. “Perhaps you don’t appreciate what it is like for a black person to see an ape lynched/hung from a noose for a two-week period and your white peers laughing about it.”

Temple said Toomer did not hear back from Long.

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