Wash. Harassment Lawsuit Gets Congress Members Attention

May 23, 2013

A sexual harassment lawsuit against Evans Fruit near Yakima, Wash., came under scrutiny this week during a congressional hearing. The feds recently lost this expensive, high-profile case, and some Congress members are now asking… “Was it worth it?”

Evans Fruit in Eastern Washington is one of the country’s largest apple growers. Two years ago, it became a target of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The federal agency has increasingly focused on workplace harassment in the Northwest farm industry.

In a two-part lawsuit against Evans, several women alleged a foreman made demands for sex, then retaliated with threats when they complained to the EEOC.

The feds lost the harassment case. Then last month, a judge threw out the retaliation lawsuit, saying it lacked evidence.

On Wednesday, Congress members questioned the EEOC’s overall priorities during a hearing in the House subcommittee on Workforce Protections.

Republican Tim Walberg, of Michigan, heads that committee. He raised concerns about what he sees as an aggressive shift toward “example-setting” lawsuits, like Evans, and away from more routine cases.

“We should not be diverting scarce resources away from workers who believe they’ve been harmed in order to follow a hunch," Walberg says. "And we should not be dragging our nation’s job creators through unnecessary and costly investigations without a factual basis of wrongdoing.”

Jacqueline Berrien is chairwoman of the EEOC.

“When and if we determine that there is no merit to a charge of discrimination, the last thing that anyone in this agency – particularly given our limited resources – wants to do is to waste any of those resources by continuing a meritless investigation," Berrien says.

Berrien points out the EEOC handles about 100,000 cases a year. In the last fiscal year, only nine of those cases went to trial and just one was a loss.

Berrien also said the agency has reduced its case backlog 20 percent in the past two years, at a time when they’ve also had budget cuts.

The price tag for the Evans Fruit case is estimated to be in the millions. EEOC attorneys are still pushing for the retaliation suit to go to trial.

Copyright 2013 KUOW