The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Cedar Rapid based company CRST, claiming that up to 150 women have stepped forward with allegations of being groped, sexually harassed, assaulted or propositioned by they men they were training with. Wile many of those claims were sifted out, the EEOC found merit in the allegations of dozens of women.
“I was beaten, I was fondled, I was humiliated and I was taught nothing,” one trainee, Ramona Villareal, said in a deposition.
The sexual harassment case was initiated by a December 2005 complaint from driver Monika Starke, of Azle, Texas, who says she was paired with a driver who constantly made crude sexual remarks and advances.
Out of the skillet and into the fire, Starke escaped the man’s truck, but says she was then paired with another driver who demanded sex in exchange for a passing grade.
After failing to reach a settlement for Starke, in 2007, the EEOC filed a lawsuit on behalf of all female drivers subjected to “a sexually hostile and offensive work environment.” After the EEOC sent letters to thousands of female employees, about 150 gave depositions in which they described being alone for weeks in trucks with male drivers.
Another woman claims her trainer asked for oral sex every morning and told her if she slept with him she’d be guaranteed to pass.
Yvonne Fortner testified that her trainer turned on pornographic movies daily and told her he wanted her to perform similar acts. “And he never let me go a day without telling me that he controlled me passing or failing,”
The EEOC sued on behalf of the women, but the lawsuit backfired and landed the agency itself on trial.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the CRST case, condemning the EEOC’s investigation tactics, stating the EEOC needs to be more cooperative with companies, that suits brought on in haste cost companies millions and destroy reputations.
Judge Linda Reade, said the agency used “a ‘sue first, ask questions later’ litigation strategy,” and dismissed the case, then ordered the agency to pay CRST $4.4 million in attorney’s fees, acknowledging “dozens of potentially meritorious sexual harassment claims may now never see the inside of a courtroom.”
The appeals court sided with Judge Reade in a 2-1 ruling, but threw out the fee award and reinstated two claims: Starke’s and one filed by a woman who said her trainer repeatedly entered the cab wearing only his underwear. The court ruled that EEOC should have done a more thorough investigation and informal mediation before filing suit.
“We think it was a very favorable decision,” said CRST General Counsel Eric Baker. “We certainly believe in all instances we took those matters seriously. We do believe that we will be exonerated.”
Cedar Rapids attorney Matt Reilly, who has represented women said. “It’s a tragedy what happened. The sad thing about this is, the merits haven’t been an issue for so long. The appeal was about technicalities.”
As a result, the dozens of women named in the suit may never see justice and may never receive back wages. The ruling could have further implications. In Missouri, Iowa, Arkansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota, the agency will have to investigate the allegations of every worker’s claim and attempt to reach a settlement before filing suit.
The EEOC argues that it is impractical in cases involving hundreds or even thousands of employees, furthermore delaying relief to employees in emotional or financial distress, and it would cost the agency innumerable time and money.
“We are an agency with limited resources already, and this is something that, if it stands, would make it even more challenging for us to address and vindicate discriminatory violations in the 8th Circuit,” EEOC general counsel P. David Lopez said.
One of the cases did reach a jury. A California woman opted out of the EEOC process and filed her own lawsuit that resulted in a $1.5 million verdict against the company.
The EEOC has a week to appeal the case.