Coca-Cola is facing a lawsuit in Georgia federal court which claims a former manager was fired in retaliation for reporting racial discrimination within the company’s bidding process for construction projects.
The manager bringing the claims is William Armstrong, who began working with Coke 30 years ago. Armstrong claims he was terminated as a senior project manager after filing an ethics complaint against the company because of a push by other managers to award multi-million-dollar contracts to diverse bidders.
In his complaint, Armstrong said there was a group of Coca-Cola leaders known as the “Justice League” who invited Black-owned companies to bid on $120 million worth of work, which he was opposed to because he said it discriminated against qualified non-Black companies in the Atlanta area.
“To exclude a vendor based solely on the skin color, ethnic background or sexual orientation of an owner/owners is a process I do not believe our company should participate in,” Armstrong said.
The complaint claims that Coca-Cola sent out requests for information, or RFIs, for bids to potential general contactors for two refurbishment projects in June 2021. The requests were delivered anonymously, Armstrong said, to ensure that the company’s money went to the most qualified bidder, and “not to a company as the result of favoritism or unlawful motive.” But the fairness of the process changed, he claimed, when then-facilities manager Hasan Jones got involved with the projects.
Jones, a member of the "Justice League," had never been involved with bidding previously, but Armstrong said he attempted to "take over" the process after the initial bidding requests were sent out to qualified companies. At Jones' insistence, Armstrong said, an additional 12 requests for information for bids were sent to Black-owned companies. Eventually, he said Jones and two others "reconfigured the entire RFI process" to include a list of Black-owned potential vendors that more than twice exceeded the original list and included firms from outside of Atlanta, as well as some that weren't fully qualified for the job. Jones also allegedly coached one of the Black-owned firms on how to partner with a female-owned firm to make their bid for the general contractor role more compelling, which Armstrong said was a violation of Coke's procurement processes.
This all happened while Armstrong was on a work trip in Mexico, according to the complaint. Upon his return, Armstrong said he was shocked by the changes and discussed them with supervisors, who agreed they were "extremely problematic" since they were in "direct contravention" to Coke's written procurement and contracting procedures.
After that discussion, Armstrong said, a meeting was arranged so that he, Jones and other stakeholders could discuss the projects. It was canceled without explanation. Armstrong said he continued to take his concerns about the potential discriminatory impact caused by Jones' involvement in the projects to leadership for almost a full month, without any steps being taken to address them. He eventually notified management of his intent to file an internal ethics complaint, which he said they tried to dissuade him from doing. He moved forward with the complaint anyway in July 2021 because he believed it was "the right thing to do."
An investigation was opened into the allegations, at which point Armstrong said leadership began accusing him of taking kickbacks from contractors and expressed unhappiness with his decision to file a complaint instead of addressing the matter internally. He said he began to feel so much pressure from leadership that he filed an employee relations complaint on July 30. The day after the investigation ended in late August, Jones left the company. While Armstrong wasn't informed of its full outcome, he said investigators told him the investigation confirmed that Jones had been in direct communication with potential vendors.
Two months later, Armstrong was terminated as part of what he called a "fabricated restructuring" that eliminated his role within the company. He argued in his complaint that the restructuring was just an excuse to fire him for complaining and that he and his position were still needed to complete the ongoing project.
"The universal view by those working on the projects at Coke apart from the retaliating managers is the projects desperately need Mr. Armstrong's expertise to be completed by 2023," the complaint said. "Coke terminated Mr. Armstrong for refusing to sit quietly by while the Justice League commandeered his projects to achieve a racially discriminatory purpose."
Armstrong is seeking compensatory, special and punitive damages, back pay and pre- and post- judgment interest, as well as either injunctive relief reinstating him to his position or, alternatively, an award of front pay.