Florida Farm Managers Subjected Women Workers to Coerced Sex, Groping and Verbal Abuse, Then Fired Them for Objecting, Federal Agency Charged
MIAMI -- A federal jury has returned a unanimous verdict awarding a total of $17,425,000 to five former female employees of Moreno Farms, Inc., a produce growing and packing operation in Felda, Fla., who suffered sexual harassment and retaliation, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced today.
According to EEOC's suit, two sons of the owner of Moreno Farms and a third male supervisor engaged in graphic acts of sexual harassment against female workers in Moreno Farms' packaging house, including regular groping and propositioning, threatening female employees with termination if they refused the supervisors' sexual advances, and attempting to rape, and raping, multiple female employees. All five women were ultimately fired for opposing the three men's sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment and retaliation for complaining about it violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. EEOC filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process. The case was tried by EEOC Trial Attorneys Beatriz André and Daniel Seltzer.
"EEOC has been at the forefront of combating employment discrimination on behalf of farmworkers," said EEOC General Counsel David Lopez. "We are committed to ensuring that all immigrant and vulnerable populations are protected by the anti-discrimination laws, and this is the latest in a number of successful cases that we have litigated to stop these discriminatory practices."
This case was filed on Aug. 29, 2014 along with another, separate lawsuit charging an agricultural nursery with sexual harassment of a female worker at the hands of her supervisors. These lawsuits sought to raise awareness of, and underscore EEOC's longstanding nationwide commitment to, addressing the plight of this vulnerable segment of workers, who are often reluctant or unable to exercise their rights under equal employment laws.
On Sept. 10, the jury returned a unanimous verdict in the Moreno Farms case, awarding $2,425,000 in compensatory damages and $15 million in punitive damages to the five female farmworkers, who intervened in EEOC's suit and were represented by Victoria Mesa-Estrada of Mesa and Coe Law, P.A. and Gregory S. Schell, managing attorney for Florida Legal Services' Migrant Farmworker Justice Project.
Beatriz André, EEOC's lead attorney in the case, said, "Having long been silenced by shame and fear, this trial offered these five women the opportunity to give voice publicly to their experiences and their desire for justice."
The trial was limited to damages, as the corporate defendant defaulted and did not participate in the trial. The court has also reserved jurisdiction to hear requests for injunctive relief from EEOC as well as whether those damages awarded for violations of Title VII should be reduced to statutory damage caps.
Robert E. Weisberg, regional attorney for EEOC's Miami District Office, said, "The jury's verdict today should serve as a clear message to the agricultural industry that the law will not tolerate subjecting female farm workers to sexual harassment and that there are severe consequences when a sex-based hostile work environment is permitted to exist."
Preventing workplace harassment through systemic litigation and investigation is one of the six national priorities identified by the Commission's Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP). Eliminating practices that prohibit individuals from exercising their rights under employment discrimination statutes is another one of EEOC's six national priorities.
For a select list of pending and resolved cases involving farmworkers from 1999 to the present, see http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/litigation/selected/farmworkers_august_2014.cfm
EEOC is responsible for enforcing federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about EEOC is available on its web site at www.eeoc.gov.