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Press Release 02-06-2020

Cottle Strawberry to Pay $12,500 to Settle EEOC Religious Discrimination Lawsuit

 Company Fired Seventh-Day Adventist Because She Refused to Work on Her Sabbath, Federal Agency Charged

RALEIGH, N.C. - Cottle Strawberry Nursery, Inc., a corporation based in Faison, N.C., that has grown, packed, shipped, imported, and distributed fruits and vegetables for over 50 years, will pay $12,500 and provide other relief to settle a religious discrimination lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency announced today.  The EEOC had charged that Cottle Strawberry violated federal law when it refused to accommodate an employee's religious belief and fired her because of her religion, Seventh-day Adventist.   

According to the EEOC's complaint, Helen Perez, a Seventh-day Adventist, holds the sincere religious belief that she must not engage in labor during the Biblical Sabbath, which, in Perez's faith, begins at sunset on Friday and ends at sunset on Saturday.

According to the EEOC's lawsuit, from approximately 2016 until 2018, Perez worked each year as a seasonal worker for Cottle Strawberry at the company's Faison facility. The EEOC alleged that previously, Cottle Strawberry did not require Perez to work Saturdays, but allegedly informed employees in 2018 that all workers were required to work seven days a week. Accord­ing to the complaint, Perez notified Cottle Strawberry management that she could not work Saturdays for religious reasons. The complaint further alleged the company fired Perez in response.

Such alleged conduct violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees' sincerely-held religious beliefs absent undue hardship. The EEOC filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, Southern Division (EEOC v. Cottle Strawberry Nursery, Inc., Civil Action No 7:19-cv-00064-BO) after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its con­ciliation process.

In addition to providing monetary relief for Perez, the two-year consent decree settling the lawsuit requires Cottle Strawberry to develop a policy on religious accommodations and to provide periodic reports to the EEOC. Under the decree, Cottle Strawberry will conduct annual training for all employees on the requirements of Title VII, its prohibition against religious discrimination in the workplace, and on the company's religious accommodation policy. The decree also requires Cottle Strawberry to post a notice concerning the lawsuit and employee rights under federal anti-discrimination laws.  

"No employee should be forced to choose between her faith and her job," said Kara G. Haden, acting regional attorney for the EEOC's Charlotte District Office. "This case demon­strates once again the EEOC's commit­ment to fighting religious discrimination in the work­place."

The EEOC advances opportunity in the workplace by enforcing federal laws prohibiting employ­ment discrimination. More information is available at Stay connected with the latest EEOC news by subscribing to our email updates.