Central Wash. fruit grower wins sexual harassment case

Central Wash. fruit grower wins sexual harassment case
YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) - A federal jury rejected sexual harassment claims by 14 women who said they had been subjected to a sexually hostile work environment while working for one of the country's largest apple growers.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had filed the case on behalf of the Evans Fruit orchard workers.

A jury of seven men and two women ruled in favor of Evans Fruit on Wednesday, capping a civil trial that started March 18 in U.S. District Court in Yakima, the Yakima-Herald Republic reported Thursday.

The jury's verdict represents justice and a big dose of reality, lead attorney for Evans Fruit, Brendan Monahan, said in a statement.

"We can only hope this verdict changes the confrontational manner in which the EEOC approaches its claims against members of the agriculture industry," he said.

In a brief interview outside the courtroom, Jeanette Evans said she and her husband, Bill, who grew the company from a 10-acre orchard in 1949 to a 7,500-acre industry leader, were right to refuse a settlement and place their fate in a jury's hands.

"There wasn't a farmer or an employer on that jury, just common, hard-working folks," she said. "Justice prevailed."

William Tamayo, the San Francisco-based regional attorney for the EEOC, said he and his colleagues were disappointed but unbowed.

"We believe (sexual harassment) is still a problem in the industry," he said, adding the she-said-he-said nature of many sexual harassment claims "are always going to be an issue in any case where there are no other witnesses."

The plaintiffs claimed they were subjected to unwanted sexual advances by supervisors, including a foreman who was fired after the lawsuit began for embezzling $500,000 from the company. The foreman worked under the Evans' son, Tim, who died of cancer in 2010.

Evans Fruit countered that none of the plaintiffs complained of harassment while they were employed there, and said most of the complaints could be traced directly to a disgruntled cousin of the foreman.

A second trial in a separate but related EEOC lawsuit, alleging the company retaliated against employees who filed harassment complaints, is set to begin May 20. There are 10 plaintiffs in that case, including some that were party to the first case.