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Ex-Apple store worker in Oregon sues, says was fired for complaining about racist customers

The former Apple store employee in Portland says he was called "boy" by some customers, but management often told him in such instances to "assume positive intent."

A black former Apple store employee in Oregon is suing the company, alleging he was fired for complaining about racist behavior by customers.

In a lawsuit filed last week in Circuit Court of the State of Oregon, Joshua Holt alleges the company and two of his former supervisors engaged in unlawful employment discrimination by treating him differently than his nonblack coworkers, allowing a hostile environment and terminating his employment.

Holt, 32, who lives in the Portland area, was hired by Apple in 2011 as a part-time specialist at a store in Bridgeport, Oregon, where he was promoted twice, according to the lawsuit. In 2013, after he was promoted to an expert, he was transferred to a downtown Portland store. He was regularly a top performer and was encouraged to apply for management positions, the lawsuit claims. Holt says in the lawsuit that he applied for a management role but was told he was "not ready" for the position and received no feedback as to how he could improve.

Holt moved to Atlanta to open an Apple store in 2014 and said he noticed a difference there in the work culture for blacks, including that more people of color were in management positions.

In 2015, Holt was assigned to the Washington Square mall Apple store and almost immediately noticed hostile treatment based on his race from customers and management, the lawsuit states. White customers frequently asked him if he worked at the location even when he had welcomed them into the store, a question they did not pose to nonblack employees. White customers at the store would also avoid him, instead approaching white employees for assistance, the lawsuit says.

On one occasion in January 2018, Holt said a white male customer shoved him in the back. Holt immediately reported the incident to management, but supervisors questioned the veracity of his account and sent him to the back of the store rather than address the customer. Only after the same customer called another employee an "Asian b----" did Apple take action, the lawsuit states. Holt also claims he was called "boy" by some customers and that when he reported that to coworkers and management, he was often told to "assume positive intent" or that he was overreacting, the lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit says the stress from the lack of support from his supervisors took a toll on Holt's health.

He took a medical leave in April 2018, and when he returned to work in August of that year, his doctor sent a letter requesting he be transferred to a downtown Apple store with more diverse staff and customers, the lawsuit says.

But Holt said that in this and other instances, the company denied or ignored his requests to transfer to stores with greater diversity and where he would "have fewer interactions with racially discriminatory customers."

In December 2018, a white customer at the Washington Square mall store was looking at an Apple watch and claimed to not understand the information Holt provided about the product. When a white employee provided the same explanation, the customer said he understood.

Holt said he politely asked the customer, "Isn't that what I just said?" and the customer put his hand up to Holt's face as if to gesture "stop," which prompted a coworker to intervene, according to the lawsuit. Another coworker asked management to remove the customer, but instead Holt said management sent him home. He was then placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. His employment was terminated in March 2019.

"Apple refused to adequately address widespread racial harassment and discrimination among its employees and customers, and it failed to protect Mr. Holt from" such conduct, the lawsuit states.

NBC News reached out to a manager at the Washington Square mall store, but did not immediately hear back. A spokeswoman for Apple declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

On its website, Apple says the company is making consistent progress toward increasing diversity among its ranks. "For the past five years, we’ve continued to hire more women and underrepresented minorities every year," the website says: Fifty-three percent of new hires in the U.S. are from historically underrepresented groups in the tech field.

Holt is seeking $750,000 in damages.