Employment Law Daily Jury awards female farmworker $850K on EEOC claims arising from rape by supervisor
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Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Jury awards female farmworker $850K on EEOC claims arising from rape by supervisor

By Pamela Wolf, J.D.

The EEOC logged a victory on December 19 when a federal jury in Florida came in with a verdict in favor of a female farmworker at Favorite Farms in Dover, Florida, who was raped by her male supervisor. The jury awarded a total of $850,000 in compensatory and punitive damages on her claims of sexual harassment, retaliation, and assault. The EEOC had brought the lawsuit against Favorite Farms, which primarily grows strawberries, asserting sexual harassment and retaliation. The employee subsequently intervened and added claims of assault and battery.

According to the EEOC, the evidence at trial showed that the employee reported the rape to management and to police the same day it occurred. However, management failed to properly investigate the complaint, and instead sent the victim home from work without pay the next workday. Favorite Farms also took no action against the harasser, leaving him to supervise women in the fields, despite evidence that this was not the first complaint of sexual harassment. Instead, Favorite Farms continued retaliating against the victim and forced her to take a leave of absence.

Summary judgment denied. In October, the court ruled that many triable issues existed, including whether the employer was entitled to the Faragher/Ellerth defense, particularly since it never translated its sexual harassment policy into Mixteco (the native Mexican language that the employee and 65 percent of the workers spoke) and had received a prior complaint about the supervisor. The employee also advanced her assault and battery claim against the employer since a question remained whether the supervisor accomplished the alleged rape by virtue of the employer/employee relationship.

“Inspection” assault. The employee resided with her two children in housing that the employer provided and leased to her. She was supervised by the crew leader, whose duties included assigning field laborers to apartments in these company-provided housing units. The crew leader was said to have visited her apartment and stated that he needed to inspect it to determine whether there was room to move additional people into the apartment. He then pushed her into a bedroom and raped her during the “inspection.”

Retaliation. About two weeks after reporting the sexual assault, the employee was suspended without pay. She also received a written warning and was terminated about three weeks later.

Jury verdict. The jury found that the supervisor had harassed the worker because of her sex and that it had created a hostile work environment for her. Jurors also concluded that Favorite Farms did not exercise reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any harassing behavior in the workplace because of sex. On this claim, the jury awarded $150,000 in compensatory damages and an equal amount in punitive damages.

The jury also concluded that Favorite Farms took materially adverse employment actions against the employee because of her complaints to management and law enforcement, and because she obtained an ex parte temporary injunction against the supervisor. Jurors awarded her $250,000 in compensatory damages and the same amount in punitive damages on this claim.

On her claim of assault, the jury awarded the employee $50,000 in compensatory damages. Although they found the supervisor had also battered her, they fell short of finding that he did so to further the purposes or interests of Favorite Farms, and thus awarded no damages.

“This verdict is significant because the jury was able to see the plight of a vulnerable woman at work,” EEOC Regional Attorney Robert E. Weisberg said in a statement.

Companies: Favorite Farms, Inc.

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