Sexual harassment claims still account for nearly 17% of all claims received by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), with more than 6,750 complaints of sexual harassment filed in 2016 alone. And, the damage awards continue to grow.
A federal judge recently awarded $1.47 million in damages for a sexual harassment case against a California dried fruit processor for behavior that created both “quid pro quo” sexual harassment and a hostile work environment – two types of sexual harassment that violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
EEOC Files Sexual Harassment Claims Against Z Foods Inc., Zoria Farms
In September 2013, dried fruit processing giant, Z Foods, Inc., and its predecessor, Zoria Farms, were sued in the California federal court. The lawsuit claimed that the Madera, California-based company allowed two male supervisors to subject several female farmworkers to sexual harassment by basing employment and promotions on sexual favors and submitting the employees to continuous sexual advances, stalking, leering, and unwanted physical touching.
The female employees and several male employees who witnessed the ongoing harassment complained about the abuse to their employers, but Z Foods responded to the complaints by retaliating and discharging the employees.
Z Foods Allowed Supervisor Conduct That Violated Title VII of Civil Rights Act
Sexual harassment is a type of sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The EEOC defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances or conduct of a sexual nature that unreasonably interferes with a person's job performance or creates a hostile, intimidating or offensive work environment.
The recent Z Foods case illustrates both types of sexual harassment recognized under Title VII: 1) quid pro quo harassment and 2) the creation of a hostile work environment. Under “quid pro quo” harassment, an authority figure bases employment and/or job benefits or promotions on a subordinate’s ability to tolerate sexual harassment. In the Z Foods case, this would include:
- Conditioning employment on sexual favors
- Conditioning promotion on sexual favors
Hostile work environment harassment includes unwelcome conduct based on sex that is severe or pervasive enough to create an abusive or offensive working environment, as seen in the Z Foods case as:
- Continuous sexual advances
- Stalking female employees
- Leering at female employees
- Unwanted physical touching
- Retaliation against employees for complaining
A single occurrence of quid pro quo harassment is often enough to sustain a claim, while a pattern of frequent or continued harassment is typically needed to support a hostile work environment claim.
Z Foods Employees Suffered Severe Emotional Distress, Awarded $1.47M
The court found that the actions of Z Foods and Zoria Foods violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In April 2015, Zoria Farms paid $330,000 to resolve the claims and agreed to a five-year consent decree containing injunctive remedies.
Soon after, in July 2016, the court ruled that the employees suffered severe emotional distress as a result of the behavior they were submitted to while employed by Z Foods. A federal judge awarded the claimants $1.47 million in damages (offset by the Zoria Farms settlement). The large award was due partly to the lack of Z Foods’ response to internal employee complaints and employer retaliation.
Workers have the right to voice their concerns about a sexually hostile work environment without fearing retaliation, and with this ruling, the court sent an unmistakable message that employers punishing employees for reporting harassment are open targets for massive liability.
Make sure to speak with an experienced sexual harassment lawyer if you have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace or have been fired or demoted for voicing your concerns. If you are interested in filing a complaint, be sure to do so before statutes of limitations expires.
An experienced sexual harassment attorney can help ensure your complaint is filed correctly and in a timely manner. Call Whistleblower Law Group to learn your options and to stop the harassment: 877.858.8018 or Connect Online.