A Sudanese immigrant is suing Whole Foods Market, alleging that a manager at the Portland store blocked him from applying for a supervisory role.

Mark Opio Courtesy Johnson, Webbert & Garvan, LLP

Mark Opio, 36, who immigrated to Maine 20 years ago after spending nine years in a refugee camp, said the company canceled his interview for a position as assistant team leader and alleged that he was unable to read the store’s operations manual. The lawsuit says a manager also told Opio that he hadn’t done enough to “prove” himself to others in the department where he hoped to work and failed to get co-workers to “accept you as one of them.”

The Maine Human Rights Commission found last fall that Opio had been discriminated against on the basis of race, color, ancestry and/or national origin. Seeking a ruling from the state human rights panel is a precondition to filing a discrimination suit under Maine law.

A supervisor at the store declined to comment Tuesday afternoon and a company spokeswoman said in an email that Whole Foods had no statement because the matter is under litigation.

Opio worked in Whole Foods’ meat department for seven years until 2015, when he moved to Canada for a few years, according to his lawyer, Carol J. Garvan of the Portland firm of Johnson, Webbert & Garvan.

Opio returned to work for the store in 2018 and the next year applied for an open position as assistant team leader in the meat department. Opio’s suit said that Whole Foods’ policy is to have a panel interview all applicants for supervisory roles, but Opio said a manager at the store canceled his interview two days before it was scheduled and explained the action with the comments about Opio’s reading ability, failing to “prove” himself and getting co-workers to “accept” him.

Opio learned English during his years in the refugee camp and has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and management from the University of Southern Maine.

After telling Opio that his interview was canceled, the company then hired the only other applicant for the job, a white man with less than two years’ experience with Whole Foods, the suit alleges.

Opio, who became a U.S. citizen in 2007, said in a statement that the company’s treatment of him leaves him wondering if he will always be treated as second-class in this country.

Garvan said she will seek compensation for lost wages along with compensatory and punitive damages and also wants an order requiring civil rights training at Whole Foods.

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