Advertise in Print | Subscriptions
Published November 04, 2010, 07:29 AM

Judge orders injunction against Yakima grower

YAKIMA, Wash. — A federal judge has barred an Eastern Washington fruit grower from retaliating against its employees or attempting to pay witnesses pending the outcome of a sexual harassment lawsuit.

By: Shannon Dininny, Associated Press

YAKIMA, Wash. — A federal judge has barred an Eastern Washington fruit grower from retaliating against its employees or attempting to pay witnesses pending the outcome of a sexual harassment lawsuit.

Seven women filed suit in June against Evans Fruit Co., one of the largest apple growers in the country, and a former foreman, claiming they were subjected to unwanted sexual advances and to retaliation for rejecting them.

After a four-day hearing, U.S. District Judge Lonny Suko in Yakima imposed the preliminary injunction on Oct. 26. Suko ruled that potential intimidation of current and former Evans Fruit employees could harm an investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission into the claims.

The EEOC is representing the women in the case.

Suko enjoined the company and foreman from taking retaliatory measures or paying or offering to pay people for favorable testimony or information about the case. The order also bars Evans Fruit from terminating, suspending, disciplining or failing to pay employees that could preclude or discourage them from participating in the case.

An attorney for Evans Fruit, Brendan Monahan, could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday. A woman who answered the telephone at Evans Fruit said no one there would comment on the case.

The foreman, Juan Marin, no longer works for Evans Fruit, for reasons independent of the allegations, according to his attorney, Rob Case.

“My client looks forward to clearing his name at the end of the day,” Case said. “This is only a preliminary order. Within the order, the judge stressed that the underlying claims have not been addressed and no discovery has been conducted on those claims.”

William Tamayo, regional attorney for the EEOC, said he believes people have refused to come forward about the case because they fear getting hurt or losing their jobs.

“Hopefully more witnesses and victims will step forward,” he said. “This is a challenge in every industry, but especially here in agriculture, where the fear of retaliation or retribution is real.”

The allegations center on an Evans-owned ranch in Sunnyside, about 35 miles southeast of Yakima in central Washington’s agricultural belt, where the women claim they were subjected to unwanted sexual advances by the ranch foreman and supervisors. Two women ultimately quit their jobs, according to the original complaint.

The alleged actions violate the federal Civil Rights Act.

Suko issued a temporary restraining order June 24, after the women claimed that Evans Fruit employees had photographed them and made offers to pay for information and testimony.

In extending the restraining order with an injunction, Suko found there were inconsistencies in some testimony and questions about the motives of some witnesses. However, he concluded that the commission had met its burden of clearly showing a “likelihood of irreparable harm.”

“Without a preliminary injunction, there is a likelihood the EEOC’s continuing investigation and pursuit of those claims will be stymied,” Suko ruled.

One legal expert called the injunction unusual, in part because judges are making a preliminary decision about the case and are, for good reason, reluctant to issue them.

Lea Vaughn, an employment law professor at the University of Washington School of Law, also said such injunctions are rare because most employers today know better than to try behavior, such as photographing or attempting to pay witnesses, and their attorneys would presumably warn them against it.

“I would say this is unusual, and the scope of it is much broader than anything I can remember,” Vaughn said.

Tags: