REYNOLDSBURG, Ohio (WCMH) – The highest-ranking Black woman at AT&T Ohio said it took her more than three decades to climb the company’s ranks – but just one fateful day and a death threat for her to come crashing down.
When firing 54-year-old Stacey Fowler from her role as director of the construction and engineering department, AT&T Ohio said she violated company policy. But in a federal complaint filed in late September, Fowler has laid out a different story, one in which she was fired for reporting a racist death threat she believes came from a white, male subordinate.
“Rather than hold a single person responsible for this cowardly racist act, AT&T protected the racists, fulfilled their wishes, and fired Fowler instead — mere weeks after Fowler was threatened,” her complaint, filed Sept. 28 in the Southern District Court of Ohio, reads.
Fowler spent her entire 33-year AT&T Ohio career in the construction and engineering department, rising through managerial ranks before taking over the reins in 2021. In a field and department dominated by white men, she said she frequently faced resistance to her authority.
Last November, according to Fowler’s complaint, AT&T informed her that she would need to oversee a 25% reduction in force, mostly through terminating lower-level managers. She told the department’s five area managers to determine whose roles they would eliminate.
Fowler claims that at least one of the area managers, four of whom were white men, told the lower-level managers that “Fowler had chosen to terminate them because they were white men.”
Within weeks of the reduction in force’s finalization in February, an employee complained about Fowler’s “reverse-discrimination,” and AT&T opened an investigation into Fowler, her complaint asserts. The company conducted a “forensic review” of Fowler’s computer and interviewed her and area managers, who she said lied about her having “discriminatory motives.”
Then, on March 30, Fowler reported to work as normal. After a morning and afternoon filled with one-on-one meetings, Fowler returned to her office and discovered an anonymous note, calling her “stupid” and racist and misogynistic slurs.
“If we can’t take you down will take you out,” the note read. Her business card, with her position scratched out, was stapled to the note.
“It was definitely a threat,” Fowler said in an interview. “It was a racial threat. It was a personal threat. It was a death threat. And my heart just sunk to my stomach.”
Fowler later told law enforcement that she felt dizzy after reading the note and immediately reported it to AT&T. In the meantime, she started working from home.
“I think this is the part that really was very, very difficult for me. I’m working from home, but I still am interacting with the managers who I believe had something to do with the note,” Fowler said. “So I still have to be on Zoom calls with them. I still have to email them. I still have to talk to them. And I have to do it in a way where I’m not retaliating.”
But the investigation was hardly prompt, Fowler said, and occurred in stark contrast to the speedy investigation the company took into the discrimination claim against her. An investigator first interviewed her April 11, and Fowler said he identified someone he believed left the note.
A week later, Fowler was fired. She said she was told it was related to the discrimination complaint against her, but she received no exit paperwork, nor a written statement of her termination.
Three days after her termination, AT&T Ohio announced that Fowler had been awarded the Service Excellence Award for creating a management training program she facilitated across the company.
Fowler seeks compensatory and punitive damages from AT&T, as well as front and back pay. She claims that by firing her after she complained about the threat, AT&T created a hostile work environment and discriminated against her because of her race and gender.
AT&T spokesperson Jim Kimberly said in a statement that the company was “disgusted” by the note “allegedly” placed in Fowler’s office but that it could not determine who did so.
“The allegations in this lawsuit are false. Ms. Fowler was terminated after a thorough investigation revealed she violated company policy,” Kimberly said. “We do not discriminate nor do we tolerate discrimination of any kind, including based on race or any other factor. Any suggestion that we do is just wrong and we intend to fight this lawsuit.”
The death threat was not a one-off instance of discrimination, Fowler said. As one of few Black women in the department, she said a culture of racism and misogyny permeated the workplace for years. Her lawsuit, she said, is not just to defend herself against false AT&T’s accusations of her wrongdoing, but to stand up for the other marginalized employees in the company who may not feel safe reporting discrimination.
Fowler said she only received glowing performance reviews and praise for her hard work and commitment. A few months before she was fired, she received a raise and a bonus, according to her complaint. She said it’s painful that the company she’s worked at for more than half her life has cast her aside.
“I’m disgusted at the fact that all of these years, I’ve never been reprimanded for anything. I have worked countless hours, I have missed events with my kids, I have worked on holidays, I have worked my guts out for you,” she said. “And now this happens to me, and you don’t protect me.”
Read Fowler’s legal complaint below.