Fifty-nine-year-old Perman Terry has worked for the City of Miami Beach for the past 37 years. In his time with the city, he's had jobs in the parking department, public works, and sanitation. And for more than two decades, he's been a part of Miami Beach's parks and recreation department.
But since 2011, Terry says, he has encountered repeated instances of racial discrimination at work. In one particularly egregious incident in 2013, he says, a supervisor called him a "stupid-ass nigger."
"Instead of me retaliating, I walked off and wrote a statement and filed a charge," Terry, who is black, tells New Times. "And the city just threw it under the table."
Now Terry is taking his case to court. Earlier this month, he filed a lawsuit in Miami-Dade circuit court accusing the city of discriminating against him because of his race.
"Any time there's an allegation of someone using the N-word, that's what we would call direct evidence of discrimination," Terry's attorney, Peter Hoogerwoerd, says.
Terry traces the problems to 2011, when the city hired the man who would become his supervisor: Jason Atkinson, who is white. Describing the 2013 incident, Terry says Atkinson approached him one day and asked for the keys to a city truck. When he told Atkinson he couldn't hand them over because he was still using the truck, he alleges, Atkinson retorted with the racist invective.
Atkinson disputes the claim.
"No, I never, ever called him that or anyone that," he tells New Times.
Atkinson, who left the city in 2015, says he and Terry butted heads after the two ran against each other for a union election.
"This guy is reaching for anything," Atkinson says. "The only thing I ever told him is that he's lazy and that he's full of it."
Melissa Berthier, a Miami Beach spokeswoman, says the city found no basis to Terry's complaints.
"These allegations were dealt with years ago when these alleged remarks were brought to the attention of management," Berthier wrote in an email to New Times. "Human Resources found that there was nothing to corroborate Mr. Terry's allegations after a thorough HR inquiry."
Berthier added that two of Terry's complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, filed in 2013 and 2018, were dismissed.
Nevertheless, Terry's accusations are consistent with what many other black employees say they've experienced in recent years. In early 2018, New Times published a story about multiple black workers who claimed they had been passed over for promotions, reassigned to pick up trash, and segregated to North Shore Open Space Park.
That's exactly what Terry says happened to him. After complaining about the alleged remark from Atkinson, he recounts, he was reassigned to North Shore with the other black "troublemakers." He says that even though he had worked for years as an irrigation specialist and heavy-equipment operator, he was relegated to a litter-control crew, where he remains on assignment today.
"They put me in Open Space Park emptying trash cans," Terry says. "It's like they put me in that park and said, 'We're going to degrade you.'"
Like his co-workers quoted in the 2018 New Times story, Terry believes he was held back from being promoted due to his race.
After New Times published that story, the City of Miami Beach launched an internal investigation into the allegations of racial discrimination.
In a July 2019 report, the city cleared itself of any wrongdoing. The report labels Terry a "vocal employee." Without recounting Terry's specific allegations of discrimination, the city concluded that "clearly he has not been subjected to any adverse employment actions."
The employees who spoke with New Times criticized the internal probe. And Hoogerwoerd, Terry's attorney, believes the city did a lackluster job.
"It's a self-serving investigation," he says.
Terry says he has attempted, so far unsuccessfully, to gain access to the entire case file via a public-records request.
"It's something in those records they're trying to hide," he says. "They don't have half the employees in that report."
He says he expects to retire in less than two years. Before then, he hopes to return to a skilled-labor position.
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