A Chaptico man has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative, alleging the company "condones and promotes an atmosphere of open racial hostility and harassment."

The lawsuit was filed Feb. 10 in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt by Paul Fenwick, 43, an African American employed at the company for more than 22 years. The lawsuit contends that Fenwick was wrongfully fired from his job as a chief lineman in 2001 and, since he was reinstated by a union arbitrator last year, the company has "engaged in abusive, punitive practices in an effort to prompt Fenwick to quit."

Mark MacDougall, SMECO's vice president for external affairs, denied the allegations and said the company would file a court response soon.

The lawsuit is the first racial discrimination suit against SMECO in at least 10 years, MacDougall said. A U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claim Fenwick filed against SMECO last year was the second such claim against the company since 1998, MacDougall said. The 1998 complaint and Fenwick's were both dismissed.

Fenwick declined to comment. The Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and the NAACP have taken up Fenwick's case.

The lawsuit alleges SMECO violated several federal laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The suit said Fenwick's white supervisors did little as co-workers tormented him with racial jokes.

For instance, as Fenwick's crew worked near an old slave quarters, one white co-worker put a rope around Fenwick's neck and said, "We're going to hang you like in the old days," the lawsuit said.

On another occasion, the lawsuit alleges, a white co-worker asked if Fenwick knew the black character on the television cartoon, "The Jetsons." When Fenwick said there was no black character, the suit alleges the co-worker replied, "Isn't the future great?"

Fenwick reported these incidents and others to his supervisor, the lawsuit said, but no action was taken. MacDougall said SMECO investigated each allegation and none could be substantiated.

On June 5, 2001, Fenwick had a heated argument with a white employee who had allegedly told others that he failed a random drug test, according to the lawsuit. Ten days later, Fenwick was fired because of the fight, though the white employee was not, the lawsuit said.

MacDougall said the fight was "the last straw" for Fenwick, who "had a history of prior incidents of abusive behavior."

"It was a combination of all those things that led to the termination," MacDougall said.

Fenwick fought the firing through his union and won reinstatement July 16, according to the suit. MacDougall said the arbitrator ruled that the firing was too harsh, but a suspension would have been appropriate.

When Fenwick returned to work, he was transferred from his job in Leonardtown to a facility in White Plains -- "a remote location . . . in an ongoing attempt to force him to resign," according to Fenwick's allegations. MacDougall said the White Plains facility is bigger than the one in Leonardtown and that the transfer was not punitive.