A federal jury on Wednesday rejected all sexual harassment claims against Evans Fruit, one of the country’s largest apple growers, following a 2 1/2-week trial in U.S. District Court in Yakima.
The jury of seven men and two women deliberated about five hours before ruling that none of the 14 female orchard workers who testified in the case proved they had been subjected to a sexually hostile work environment, as alleged by lawyers for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The verdicts capped a civil trial that got under way March 18 in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Lonny Suko.
In a statement, Brendan Monahan, the lead attorney for Evans Fruit, assailed the EEOC for what he called its “unreasonable investment in a narrative that was built on demonstrably false claims.”
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“The jury’s verdict represents justice and a big dose of reality,” he continued, adding, “We can only hope this verdict changes the confrontational manner in which the EEOC approaches its claims against members of the agriculture industry.”
But 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. Some of the 10 plaintiffs overlap.
In a brief interview outside the courtroom, Jeanette Evans said she and her huband, 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, adding, “Justice prevailed.”
William Tamayo, the San Francisco-based regional attorney for the EEOC, was on hand for the verdict and said afterwards 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.”
In its lawsuit, the EEOC alleged female employees of the company’s operations in Sunnyside were subjected to unwanted sexual advances by supervisors, particularly a since-fired foreman who worked under the Evans’ son, Tim. Tim Evans died of cancer in 2010.
That was the same year the EEOC filed suit, accusing the Evanses of failing to adopt or enforce a sexual harassment policy until 2008, and only then after a series of complaints to the federal agency starting in 2006. The number of plaintiffs eventually grew to 26, but was whittled to 15 by the start of the trial. One of the plaintiffs subsequently failed to show for court.
Lawyers for Evans argued the company had a no-nonsense culture of common sense in line with the family’s values and that none of the plaintiffs ever complained of sexual harassment while they were employed.
They also promised none of the statments of the plaintiffs, or claimants in EEOC parlance, would hold up on cross examination and that most of them could be traced back directly to a disgruntled cousin of the Evans foreman, who was fired after the lawsuit began for embezzling $500,000 from the company.
(Lead attorney Monahan has represented the Yakima Herald-Republic in public records cases against government agencies.)