Ex-employee’s lawsuit accuses Stew Leonard’s boss of making racist, sexist, anti-Semitic remarks

Customers push shopping carts outside a Stew Leonard’s supermarket in Paramus, New Jersey, U.S., on Tuesday, May 12, 2020. Stew Leonard Jr. said that meat packing plant the company uses is operating at about 70 percent capacity, and he expects it to rebound to full capacity in about a month, CT Post reported.

Angus Mordant | Bloomberg | Getty Images

A new federal lawsuit accuses the chief executive of the New York metropolitan area-based Stew Leonard’s grocery store chain of making racist and sexist comments about workers and customers.

Former longtime employee Robert Crosby Jr. also claims in his civil complaint that he was terminated from his job in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act after his bout with Covid-19 left him disabled.

Crosby, a 58-year-old father of four, accuses Stew Leonard’s and CEO Stew Leonard Jr. of creating a hostile work environment. The suit cites “systemic racial, sexual, religious and ageist discriminatory practices” carried out by management.

Crosby is seeking at least $500,000 in damages in the suit filed this week in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

The claims in the suit contrast with the farm-folksy image of the grocery chain, which once was praised by President Ronald Reagan and business guru Tom Peters. The first Stew Leonard’s opened in 1969 as a small dairy shop in Norwalk, Connecticut. The store, which featured a small petting zoo, farm-themed food displays and animatronic singing animals, experienced explosive growth in size, popularity and publicity in the following decades.

The family-owned company now has almost $400 million in annual revenue at seven locations in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey.

Leonard Jr. declined to comment on the allegations in Crosby’s suit.

“Robert Crosby, Jr. worked for Stew Leonard’s almost 20 years, but unfortunately we had to part ways,” Leonard Jr. said in a statement provided to CNBC on Tuesday. “We understand he brought a lawsuit and we will review it with our attorneys, however we do not comment on pending litigation.”

Crosby, a former loss-prevention manager, “verbally opposed” the alleged slurs and practices during his employment, the suit says.

The lawsuit also alleges that Leonard Jr. joked about the discovery several years ago of human remains and tombstones from an abandoned Orthodox Jewish cemetery located on and near the grounds of a Yonkers, New York store. The suit says workers were ordered to bury the tombstones so that “no one could find them” by the store’s president — Leonard Jr.’s cousin — who later told them to throw the human remains into a dumpster.

Crosby’s suit alleges that ever since he began working at the Yonkers location in 2001, he and his co-workers were “subjected to a workplace environment that was hostile and toxic.”

The lawsuit alleges Leonard Jr. repeatedly referred to women as “b—–s,” called two white Jewish employees his “resident Jews,” regularly referred to Black employees as “thugs” and the N-word, and made comments about Black employees’ body parts. Crosby’s suit also says he witnessed Leonard Jr. repeatedly say that Jews were the “worst customers to deal with.”

The suit also describes a company Christmas party in the early 2000s at which Leonard Jr. “insisted that upper management wear sexually suggestive and inappropriate attire including fake breasts, lingerie, sex toys and present a sexually suggestive and offensive skit.”

Crosby claims he complained several times about Leonard Jr.’s alleged practices to the company’s head of human resources. He says in the suit that she told him that “Stew’s just being Stew,” and that “he has no filter.”

Covid fight

According to Crosby’s suit, when the coronavirus began spreading widely in the United States in March 2020, Crosby complained about the lack of personal protective equipment at the store, the lack of social distancing and a ban on workers wearing protective masks on site. Those complaints fell on deaf ears, the suit says.

Crosby’s suit says that he contracted Covid in April 2020, after 50 co-workers tested positive the prior month. He says he developed symptoms that “were extreme and life-threatening” and included “loss of smell and taste, nausea, brain fog, Epstein Barr Syndrome, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome” and memory loss. This required hospitalization, the suit adds.

Stew Leonard Jr.

Adam Jeffery | CNBC

The suit says he developed “Long Haul Covid,” and that he was pressured to return to work after having been reluctantly granted medical leave. (Long Covid patients experience symptoms for months after they are infected.) During a subsequent six-day hospitalization in September 2020 for complications from Covid, Crosby was ordered by the vice president of the Yonkers store to “work from his hospital bed.”

Crosby says he was fired later that month after Stew Leonard’s refused to grant him a short leave from work so he could recover from Covid, according to his lawsuit.

Crosby filed the suit after he received a notice of probable cause issued by the New York State Division of Human Rights in response to a charge of discrimination he filed against Stew Leonard’s in 2021. 

The notice said the division determined that probable cause exists to believe that Stew Leonard’s and Leonard Jr. engaged in unlawful discriminatory practices. It also indicated that Crosby had alleged Leonard would “use the ‘N’ word freely multiple times.” In March, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued Crosby a notice of a right to sue Stew Leonard’s after he had filed an EEOC complaint against his former employer.

Graveyard controversy

Crosby also describes in his lawsuit the discovery of tombstones from May 2004 up to 2009 on the leased land occupied by Stew Leonard’s in Yonkers.

Crosby alleges that a company executive directed him and his coworkers to bury the tombstones “where no one can find them.” He also claims they were told they would lose their jobs if anyone found out about it.

In 2009, according to the lawsuit, Crosby and other workers discovered human bones while investigating a fire. They were told to “get coffee burlap bags and discard the bones in the dumpster,” the suit says.

“Defendant Leonard Jr. jokingly referred to the discovery of human remains and tombstones, which were determined to be the remains of an Orthodox Jewish Cemetery, as ‘The Yonkers Holocaust,'” the suit alleges.

Crosby’s suit alleges he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and other ailments after his bosses threatened to fire him if he told others about the bones.

Crosby’s allegations could shed new light on a story that broke in 2004, when the New York attorney general’s office alleged that a New Jersey developer may have failed to comply with a 1989 court order to arrange for the relocation of all of the remains from the cemetery when they developed the Yonkers site that came to house Stew Leonard’s and two other stores, Costco and Home Depot. The remains were supposed to have been reinterred in Israel, according to media reports at the time.

Two tombstones were found discarded near Stew Leonard’s in 2004 on the heels of those allegations, according to published reports.

Then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer claimed that the remains of up to 135 children may have been left behind during the disinterment project. The developer, Morris Industrial Builders, in 2005 agreed to settle the case with Spitzer by putting up a monument near the site of the former cemetery and to give any of the $100,000 settlement left after the monument was erected to a non-profit organization.

At the time, a lawyer for Morris Industrial said “there was no admission of ‘inappropriate behavior or improper conduct’ and maintained that all the bodies in the cemetery had been reburied,” according to a 2005 Associated Press article on the case.

The Stew Leonard’s chain’s image previously took a hit in 1993, when Stew Leonard Sr. pleaded guilty to federal charges in a $17.1 million tax fraud scheme that involved the siphoning off of store cash receipts into his private coffers. The elder Leonard was sentenced to more than four years in prison in the case, which also saw guilty pleas by his wife’s two brothers, both of whom were top executives at the store at the time.

Court records from the case filed by federal prosecutors show that Leonard Jr. received immunity as part of the deal by his dad and uncles to plead guilty, and that Leonard Jr. allegedly participated in a cash-skimming conspiracy that led to the tax charges.