Collaboration in Civic Spheres

EEOC wins $2.3M today from Fry’s in Renton sex harassment, whistleblower case

by August 30th, 2012

A $100,000 fine of Fry’s Electronics last month by a federal court judge in Seattle for procedural misconduct in a harassment and retaliation case at its Renton store, was just the first shoe dropping. Today, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced the national consumer electronics chain has signed a consent decree agreeing to pay $2.3 million to two former Fry’s Renton employees and institute new internal policies aimed at preventing sexual harassment and punishment of staff whistleblowers. “On a per capita basis, this is one of the largest settlements EEOC has won on behalf of victims,” said Justine Lisser, Senior Attorney Advisor in the EEOC’s Office of Communications in Washington, D.C.

In a news release issued today, EEOC General Counsel P. David Lopez said, “The case should send a clear message that sexual harassment of vulnerable employees remains a serious problem in this country, as is employer retaliation against those who report harassment.” The EEOC’s suit against Fry’s had charged that an assistant manager at the Renton facility harassed a 20-year-old salesperson America Rios with sexually-oriented texts and invitations to drink at his residence. When her direct supervisor Ka Lam reported the actions to the company’s legal officials, he was fired for poor performance despite having had positive performance reviews.

The consent decree was filed with Judge Robert Lasnick of the U.S. District Court, Western District of Washington, in Seattle. It covers a three-year period. It includes distribution of the $2.3 million to Rios and Lam. He gets two-thirds of the settlement, Rios one-third. It also stipulates Fry’s must provide employees and management with anti-harassment training, must report harassment complaints and responses to the EEOC, and must post a notice of this settlement and EEOC contact information for all employees to see.

In the EEOC news release, Rios said, “This was my first job, and I just wanted the harassment to stop. It really meant a lot to have my supervisor speak out for me, and it was horrifying to see him lose his job over it. I’m elated and relieved by the settlement, for Ka Lam’s sake as much as for mine.”

UPDATE: In an interview attorney Scott Blankenship of the Seattle-based Blankenship Law Firm, which represented the plaintiffs for the EEOC, said Rios is now working as a manager at a Wells-Fargo Bank in the Seattle area and Lam has relocated to Northern California where he is working for another company in the consumer electronics industry. Lam had been accused by his superiors of perpetrating the harassment himself, said Blankenship. The assistant manager alleged to have harassed Rios was named Minasse Ibrahim and was close friends with the store manager Art Squires: they shared an office and golfed and played cards together, said Blankenship. So, the attorney added, it amounted to “a sham investigation” when Fry’s had Squires investigate the complaint against Ibrahim.

Fry’s “had no real alternative” but to settle, said Blankenship, because “we learned of additional evidence of other victims of sexual harassment” at the Renton Fry’s, which would have been introduced into the record in an ongoing arbitration proceeding in the case. Squires is still employed as the manager of the Renton store, Blankenship said; store employees reached today by phone confirmed that. Squires was not available for comment.

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