A lawsuit by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against Evans Fruit, one of the largest apple growers in the United States, was recently dismissed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Washington. This dismissal, in conjunction with the EEOC’s loss of a related trial, has been a boon to Evans Fruit, but raises some concerns about which Washington employees should be aware.
Evans Fruit Prevails in Both Sexual Harassment and Retaliation Suits
A recent article in the Seattle Times indicates that fourteen female orchard workers filed suit against the Yakima-area company, alleging that they were subject to a sexually hostile work environment. Earlier this month, a federal jury decided the case, which was filed by the EEOC on behalf of the workers, and rejected the workers’ allegations of sexual harassment. In addition to this lawsuit, the EEOC filed another suit in September of 2011, alleging that the company violated federal law by retaliating against and intimidating ten Evans Fruit workers who had cooperated with the EEOC in pursuing the sexual harassment claim (and some of whom were plaintiffs in the original suit).
The EEOC’s retaliation claim was based on a 2010 meeting between the EEOC and the Evans Fruit employees at the Sunnyside library. The EEOC claimed that an Evans Fruit ranch manager sent two men to spy on the meeting, and that the ten orchard workers were subsequently subjected to intimidation and retaliation. The U.S. District Court Judge presiding over the case, Judge Lonny Suko, granted Evans Fruit’s motion to dismiss, saying that there was no admissible evidence of threats and therefore there was nothing to connect the library meeting with acts of intimidation or retaliation.
Retaliation and Wrongful Termination
This case provides an excellent reminder to Washington employees to know their employment rights. Despite the results of this case, Washington employees – even at-will employees –still have the benefit of significant protections.
In general, at-will employees can be discharged for almost any reason without notice. However, employers are forbidden from discharging employees for certain forbidden reasons, such as firing an employee on a discriminatory basis or firing an employee in retaliation for the employee trying to enforce his or her workplace rights.
In the Evans Fruit case, the court found that the EEOC and the orchard workers failed to show enough facts to prove that the company was actually acting in retaliation for the workers’ cooperation with the EEOC. However, the workers still had the right not to be subject to retaliation for making the sexual assault claims or helping prosecute those claims. Workers in Washington state are also protected from retaliation in other situations, such as if they have made a safety or a worker’s compensation claim, or if they have acted as a whistleblower.
Even though there were not enough facts to support a case against Evans Fruit, it is important that individuals whose employers have acted in a retaliatory or intimidating manner toward them contact an attorney in order to hold their employers responsible. Employers should never be allowed to intimidate or punish their employees for insisting that their rights be respected.