Former Denver Yellow Cab driver Ahmed Odawaay endured the pain of watching his brother get shot to death during a civil war in his native Somalia.
The 32-year-old came to the U.S. as a teenager, educated himself, and earned a living driving customers around the city that has become his home.
But what he suffered on the job in America broke him down, and he said it caused him nearly the same emotional and physical stress he survived in his war-torn homeland.
His managers at Yellow Cab made his work life unbearable, calling him and fellow African drivers "monkey" and hurling racial epithets at them. According to records in an arbitration proceeding, the bosses told the drivers — mostly Muslim — to "go back to Africa" when they protested questionable fees and preferential treatment of American drivers.
When Odawaay and other drivers protested, their supervisors were indifferent. Wayne Roberson, a manager of training and hospitality at Yellow Cab, responded, "Mohamed come and Mohamed go," according to the legal documents.
Odawaay and 17 of his fellow drivers banded together and took legal action against Yellow Cab in 2010 — first attempting a federal lawsuit, then pursuing arbitration as required by agreements they signed with Yellow Cab when they were hired.
On Feb. 21, a private arbitrator issued a final award — the drivers received an average of $12,000 each for being subjected to a hostile work environment. Odawaay received $15,000.
"(Yellow Cab's) managers intended to identify (the drivers) as inferior and come from an inferior country located in an inferior continent," wrote Federico C. Alvarez, an arbitrator who decided the case.
Alvarez is a former Denver District Court judge and a Harvard Law School graduate.
"They used these comments to stifle (the drivers') demands for concessions and allegations of discrimination," Alvarez wrote in his decision.
In all, the drivers were awarded a total of $202,100, and their attorney, Diane King, was awarded $1.1 million for the cost of fighting the case on their behalf. King said the attorney fees were so high because Yellow Cab made pursuing the case difficult and filed motions to drag out the case.
She described the drivers as hard workers who already came from horrible circumstances to have to work for people who called them names.
"It is very rare in this day and age, but it absolutely happens," King said of the racial slurs. "This was done by a large group of managers."
Yellow Cab declined to comment on specific allegations against the company and its managers, but released a statement about the decision.
"Yellow Cab has a long history of diversity among its fleet of taxi operators and staff, a history of which we are extremely proud," wrote Margaret Nathan, a spokeswoman for the company. "Please note that the proceedings were in fact an arbitration before a single arbitrator and not a court proceeding. We disagree with the arbitrator's decision and the way he chose to view the evidence. Arbitrations are supposed to be a private process and we are disappointed the participants chose to take this to the media."
Drivers for Yellow Cab sign a contract to work for the company. Many drivers lease the cabs from the company, while others own their own vehicles.
Yellow Cab requires drivers to make weekly payments for their lease, insurance and auto-shop repair fees. Sometimes, drivers also have to pay fines they rack up for not filling out trip sheets correctly, which document things like the locations where fares are picked up and dropped off. The trip sheets are important because they are sometimes audited by the Public Utilities Commission.
Drivers alleged the company was cheating them out of wages in unexplained fees and unfair charges on their auto-shop repairs. Drivers were bribing workers in the repair shop to help them get their taxis fixed faster. Some of them handed over artifacts from Africa in order to get some of their fees reduced.
One week, Odawaay earned more than $900 and told his 10-year-old son, an aspiring basketball player, that he would take him to a Denver Nuggets game and buy him a pair of Air Jordans.
When Odawaay went to Yellow Cab to tally what he owed, he was left with $76, and the company never disclosed what the charges on his account were for, he said.
Odawaay drove home and couldn't bring himself to go inside and face his son, he told The Denver Post.
"I just waited outside in the car," he said. "I waited until he goes to bed because I know he was waiting for those shoes."
Odawaay eventually saved up the money and bought his son the shoes.
"Getting called names and dealing with this continually is hard," Odawaay said. "I'm a free man. I am not a slave for anybody."
The allegations against Yellow Cab include not only racial slurs, but other indignities.
For example, one driver's freedom was threatened after he was singled out by Roberson based on a police description and accused of rape.
Roberson wouldn't turn over GPS records that would have exonerated the driver until he was threatened with a subpoena by a police detective, according to the arbitration records. The driver asked another manager, Michael Rivera, to help clear him and he also refused, the records show.
The GPS data cleared the driver, but Roberson told his employees that the driver was guilty and should go to prison "for the rest of his life," the records show. The case against the cabbie was later dismissed by prosecutors.
The range of life experiences is wide for the drivers — some are unsophisticated, while others come from a more educated high society in Africa. One driver was the son of a prime minister in Somalia before he fled his homeland, and others were businessmen and doctors, Odawaay said.
"And they worked for a high school dropout who calls them the N-word," Odawaay said.
Ross Alexander, general manager of Yellow Cab; Roberson; and Rivera, driver operations manager, were all named as supervisors who used racial slurs and discriminatory tactics against the drivers. The company would not make them available for comment.
"All parties agree that (Yellow Cab's) managers yelled, swore and uttered comments to (the drivers) that were questionable at best and intended to show disdain," Alvarez wrote in his decision to award money to the drivers. "Examples included 'Go back to Africa,' ... Not only do (the drivers) allege this, but also Mr. Alexander admits doing so, as does Mr. Roberson, and Mr. Rivera."
It's unknown if the three managers still work for Yellow Cab. Nathan, the spokeswoman for the company, said she could not comment about their employment status.
Odawaay now works as an insurance salesman, and he helped found Union Taxi, a rival cab service in Denver. Instead of leasing a cab from a company, the drivers for Union Taxi are part of a cooperative of owner-operators who take home more money working for themselves, Odawaay said.
He said that for a long time he was not in a position to leave his job at Yellow Cab despite the racial slurs and abuse because his family back in Somalia and his four children here in the U.S. rely on him.
"You are supporting people back home who can't eat if you leave," he said. "Every dollar you get is going to a money transfer back home."
Felisa Cardona: 303-954-1219 or firstname.lastname@example.org