At Least 13 Women at Monte Vista Plant Physically and Verbally Abused and Three Fired for Refusing to Submit or Complaining, Federal Agency Charged
DENVER - Two potato packing companies will pay $450,000 and furnish other relief to settle a lawsuit for sexual harassment and retaliation brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency announced today.
EEOC charged Smokin' Spuds, Inc., d/b/a MountainKing Potatoes, and Farming Technology, Inc., d/b/a MountainKing Potatoes, which operate a potato packing plant in Monte Vista, Colo., with violating federal law by subjecting more than a dozen women to regular verbal sexual harassment and unwelcome physical contact from a supervisor. EEOC also claimed that the companies unlawfully discharged three of the women in retaliation for refusing to submit to the harassment or making complaints about the harassment to other management officials.
According to EEOC's suit, supervisor Samuel Valdez engaged in various sexually inappropriate actions, including making sexual comments and gestures, propositioning female employees, touching them on their buttocks and breasts, and in at least one instance, pulling a female employee onto his lap. Complaints to management went unheeded, according to EEOC, and in some circumstances, women were actually fired after complaining. As a result, the harassment continued unabated for several years.
Such alleged conduct violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sex harassment and retaliation for complaining about it. EEOC filed suit (EEOC v. Smokin' Spuds, Inc., d/b/a Mountain King Potatoes and Farming Technology, Inc., d/b/a Mountain King Potatoes, Case No. 1:14-cv-02206 REB-KMT (D. Colo.)) after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process.
According to General Counsel David Lopez, "This case is the latest in a long-series of cases challenging sexual harassment in the agricultural industry, often directed at immigrants from Mexico and Latin America, and the second sexual harassment case that EEOC's Denver office has resolved involving potato farms in the San Luis Valley geographic area." The earlier case, EEOC v. Spud Seller, Inc., 10-cv-02381-MSK-KLM, settled for $255,000 and a Consent Decree was entered on January 31, 2013. Just last month, EEOC obtained a $17 million jury verdict in its sexual harassment case against Moreno Farms, Inc.
In addition to paying $450,000 in monetary relief, the defendants in this recent case are also subject to a three-year consent decree which enjoins them from engaging in any future employment practice which discriminates on the basis of sex, including sexual harassment, and from retaliating against individuals who oppose such practices. Additionally, the decree requires extensive training for employees, supervisors and human resources officials on employment discrimination laws; letters of regret to the affected women; posting a notice regarding employees' rights to be free of harassment and retaliation; distribution of EEO policies, including in Spanish; and establishing a consent decree monitor with various oversight responsibilities. The companies will also report to EEOC regarding compliance with the decree, and they have agreed to no longer employ Samuel Valdez.
"This type of misconduct that is allowed to go on over a period of several years - with a number of different women experiencing a gauntlet of harassment from the same supervisor - has no place in the workplace," said EEOC Regional Attorney Mary Jo O'Neill. "We believe that our lawsuit and the significant relief obtained in this settlement will send the message, not only to the defendants, but to the entire produce packing industry, that EEOC will not tolerate this kind of abuse - or retaliation for complaining about it."
EEOC Trial Attorneys Iris Halpern and Loretta Medina litigated the case on behalf of EEOC, and both expressed their pride in courage of the women who stepped forward to report the discrimination and retaliation to EEOC, pointing out that in small towns across America, many women are reluctant to challenge sex harassment at work for fear of invasion of privacy, unfair damage to their reputation in the community, and loss of much-needed employment. The attorneys also noted the companies' extensive cooperation in stepping forward to prevent future harassment and retaliation through various measures in the consent decree, including agreeing to extensive training and the use of a monitor.
Denver Field Director John Lowrie added, "EEOC considers protecting immigrant, migrant and other vulnerable workers from discrimination and harassment a priority under the December 2012 Strategic Enforcement Plan. We will continue to ensure that federal anti-discrimination laws are enforced in this industry."
EEOC enforces the federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about EEOC is available on its website at www.eeoc.gov.