Press Release 04-25-2008

SEXUAL HARASSMENT VERDICT UPHELD IN FAVOR OF EEOC AGAINST AG INDUSTRY GIANT HARRIS FARMS

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.