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LABOR & EMPLOYMENT LAW 5/07/08

Jury award of over $1 million to Latina farm worker upheld by Ninth Circuit

A jury verdict in favor of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and farm worker Olivia Tamayo has been affirmed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in a sexual harassment and reprisal lawsuit against Coalinga, California-based Harris Farms, the EEOC announced April 25, 2008. Harris Farms is one of the largest integrated farming operations in the Central San Joaquin Valley.

At trial, a jury found Harris Farms liable for sexual harassment, retaliation and constructive discharge. Tamayo was awarded over $1,000,000, including attorney's fees for her private lawyer, on her federal and state law discrimination claims.

Verdict and award. During a six-week trial in a federal district court in Fresno, Tamayo, a Mexican immigrant who began picking crops for Harris Farms in the early 1980s, testified that her supervisor raped her on several occasions and threatened her with a gun or a knife to ensure her compliance. He also subjected her to repeated verbal sexual harassment and intimidation. Tamayo also described sexually offensive and threatening gossip from coworkers, as well as retaliation, culminating in conditions so intolerable that she was forced to resign.

On January 21, 2005, the jury reached their verdict against Harris Farms and awarded Tamayo $53,000 in back pay, $91,000 for front pay, and $350,000 in compensatory damages for emotional pain and distress. The jury also awarded $500,000 in punitive damages against Harris Farms to Tamayo. The amount of the punitive damages was later reduced to $300,000 because of limits set by federal antidiscrimination law.

Affirmed by appellate court. Harris Farms argued on appeal that the judge admitted evidence at trial that should not have been presented to the jury, and the award of punitive damages was unsupported. The Ninth Circuit rejected these arguments and specifically noted that punitive damages were appropriate because of Harris Farms' retaliatory tactics, which included suspending Tamayo after she reported the harassment to deter her from pursuing her complaint.

"The Ninth Circuit agreed with the jury's verdict: punitive damages were justified in light of the retaliation Mrs. Tamayo suffered," said EEOC Regional Attorney William Tamayo (no relation to Olivia Tamayo). "As an immigrant with limited education and limited English, she faced significant financial risks and social obstacles to speak out against harassment. In fact, her harasser threatened to kill her husband and otherwise harm her family. To come forward under these circumstances only to be met with further retaliation by Harris Farms is unjust and illegal."

"No matter how much an employee earns, what her duties are or how big the company is, that employee has a right to work without fear of harassment and retaliation," said private counsel William Smith of Fresno, who joined with the EEOC to represent Tamayo. "Harris Farms learned this lesson the hard way."

Since the jury's verdict in 2005, Tamayo has been recognized by farm workers and advocacy organizations nationwide for her courage in standing up to her employer and reporting the sexual harassment and retaliation she suffered, the EEOC noted.

For more information on this and other topics, consult CCH Employment Practices Guide or CCH Labor Relations.

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