Ninth Circuit Court Affirms Latina Farm Worker’s Jury Award of Over $1 Million
SAN FRANCISCO – The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has affirmed the judgment on a jury verdict in favor of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and farm worker Olivia Tamayo in a sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit against Coalinga, Calif.-based Harris Farms, one of the largest integrated farming operations in the Central San Joaquin Valley.
The appeal followed a trial where the jury found Harris Farms liable for sexual harassment, retaliation and constructive termination. Tamayo was awarded over $1,000,000, including attorney's fees for her private lawyer, on her federal and state law discrimination claims.
In its appeal, Harris Farms argued that the presiding judge (District Court Judge Anthony Ishii) admitted evidence at trial that should not have been presented to the jury and that the award of punitive damages was unsupported. Rejecting these arguments, the Ninth Circuit specifically noted that punitive damages were appropriate because of Harris Farms’ retaliatory tactics — including suspending Tamayo after she reported the harassment — to deter her from pursuing her complaint.
During a six-week trial in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California in Fresno, Tamayo, a Mexican immigrant who began picking crops for Harris Farms in the early 1980s, testified that her supervisor raped her on several occasions and threatened her with a gun or a knife to ensure her compliance. He also subjected her to repeated verbal sexual harassment and intimidation. In addition, she described sexually offensive and threatening gossip from co-workers, as well as retaliation; conditions finally became so intolerable that she was forced to resign.
On January 21, 2005, the jury reached their verdict against Harris Farms and awarded Tamayo $53,000 in back pay, $91,000 for front pay (what she would have earned if she had continued working at her job) and $350,000 in compensatory damages for emotional pain and distress. The jury also awarded $500,000 in punitive damages against Harris Farms to Tamayo. (The amount of the punitive damages was later reduced to $300,000 because of limits set by federal discrimination law.)
Since the jury’s verdict in 2005, Tamayo has been recognized by farm workers and advocacy organizations nationwide for her courage in standing up to her employer and reporting the sexual harassment and retaliation she suffered. Upon being informed of the Ninth Circuit’s decision, she said, “In the past years, I have talked to many farm worker women who did not know that they were protected from being abused in the fields. This decision is for everyone who thinks that it is useless to step forward.”
EEOC’s Regional Attorney William Tamayo (no relation to Olivia Tamayo) stated, “The Ninth Circuit agreed with the jury’s verdict: punitive damages were justified in light of the retaliation Mrs. Tamayo suffered. As an immigrant with limited education and limited English, she faced significant financial risks and social obstacles to speak out against harassment. In fact, her harasser threatened to kill her husband and otherwise harm her family. To come forward under these circumstances only to be met with further retaliation by Harris Farms is unjust and illegal.”
Michael Baldonado, acting directorof the EEOC’s San Francisco district, noted, “The EEOC is pleased that we are one step closer to providing Mrs. Tamayo with the relief that the jury awarded her. This is a major victory for farm workers nationwide and for the EEOC.”
Private counsel William Smith of Fresno, who joined with EEOC to represent Tamayo, said, “No matter how much an employee earns, what her duties are or how big the company is, that employee has a right to work without fear of harassment and retaliation. Harris Farms learned this lesson the hard way.”
The EEOC enforces the nation's laws in the private and federal sectors prohibiting employment discrimination based on race, color, gender, religion, national origin, age and disability. Additional information about the EEOC is available on its web site at www.eeoc.gov.