Companies Punished Woman for Filing Discrimination Charge, Federal Agency Said
HOUSTON - A Houston-based oil company and a Wisconsin-based energy and manufacturing company will pay $62,500 and furnish other relief to settle an employment discrimination lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency announced today. The EEOC had charged that both Vitol, Inc. and Johnson Controls, Inc. were responsible for unlawfully firing an employee for filing a sex discrimination charge against Vitol.
The EEOC's suit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division (Civil Action No. 4:11-cv-03506). The EEOC said that after serving as executive secretary to the president, Lucinda Gonzalez was fired by Vitol in July 2008 and subsequently hired by Johnson Controls as a sales assistant. In December 2008, Gonzalez filed a charge of sex discrimination with the EEOC in good faith against her former employer, Vitol. Shortly after receiving a copy of the charge and learning that the EEOC would not be investigating it further, Vitol forwarded a copy of the charge and the EEOC notice to management at Johnson Controls, where Gonzalez was employed at the time. According to the lawsuit, on the very same date that the charge and dismissal were received by Johnson Controls and reviewed by her supervisor, that company made the decision to fire Gonzalez as part of a purported reduction-in-force.
The EEOC argued that both companies' actions were retaliatory -- Vitol, by forwarding the charge to Gonzalez's new employer, and Johnson Controls, by acting on the information that Gonzalez had filed the charge by terminating her employment.
Retaliation against an employee for complaining about discrimination violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The EEOC filed suit after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process. The suits were settled by two separate consent decrees signed by Judge David Hittner.
Under the Vitol Decree, the company agreed to pay $62,500 in monetary relief to Gonzalez; provide her with a neutral job reference when requested by a prospective employer; and keep confidential all documents relating to this suit and the underlying charge and investigation. Additionally, among other things, Vitol agreed to implement and/or enforce policies prohibiting workplace discrimination and retaliation and to specifically address, through professional training, the issues of employment discrimination, harassment and retaliation with all managers, supervisors and officers. The Vitol decree is effective from the date of entry through Dec. 31, 2013. Judge Hittner signed both decrees late Friday, August 31, 2012.
Under the Johnson Controls decree, to be effective for 18 months, the company agreed to injunctive and non-monetary relief, including the separation of documents pertaining to the lawsuit from Gonzalez's personnel file and the provision, upon request, of a neutral employment reference. Additionally, Johnson Controls is required to provide training on employment discrimination and retaliation to its management and non-management employees at its West Little York Road branch; maintain and enforce policies which prohibit discrimination and retaliation in the workplace; and post a notice of non-discrimination in a location readily and normally accessible to employees.
"Employees must be assured unfettered access to the remedial mechanisms provided by the EEOC to address discrimination in the workplace," said Jim Sacher, the EEOC's regional attorney in its Houston District Office. "Even if a charge, made in good faith, is not pursued, an employee must be protected from adverse action for filing the charge. When the EEOC brings suit, it does so in the public interest, specifically so as to enlighten both employers and employees of the retaliation provisions of federal anti-discrimination law. For that reason, the non-monetary provisions, including those pertaining to policies and workplace training, are vital pieces of each settlement."
Connie Wilhite, the EEOC's senior trial attorney in Houston, said, "Even if the EEOC chooses not to pursue an investigation of a charge, an employee's right to file such a charge must remain unimpeded. This is mandated by well-established public policy which provides that the EEOC act on information contained in a charge not just for the benefit of the specific discrimination victim, but also to vindicate the public interest in preventing employment discrimination."
Vitol Inc. is a Houston-based company, incorporated in Delaware and a subsidiary of a multinational energy conglomerate, Vitol Group. According to the parent company's website, www.vitol.com, Vitol Group is a publicly traded "major oil multinational" company and "one of the largest traders in the world's energy marketplace."
According to its website, Johnson Controls is a global energy company offering products and services to optimize energy and operational efficiencies of buildings, automotive batteries and interior systems for automobiles.
The EEOC is responsible for enforcing federal laws against employment discrimination. Further information is available at www.eeoc.gov.