Our Award-Winning New York Sexual Harassment Lawyer has been asked to comment on a case filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) against Costco Wholesale Corp (“Costco”). This case is discussed generally below. If you have any questions about your hostile work environment or other forms of harassment and discrimination, contact our office for a confidential consultation to learn your rights, options and how to protect yourself. It can be difficult to speak up but it is important to assert your rights and stop the harassment.
This is an interesting case because it involves sexual harassment by a third party where the harassment was severe and ongoing. Typically, harassment claims involving third parties are difficult to bring. This case underscores the importance of how the Company reacts (or fails to react) to an employee’s complaint. In early August 2014, the EEOC filed a lawsuit against Costco, alleging the Company violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by neglecting to protect and shield Dawn Suppo, a former Costco employee, from a male customer’s sexual advances and stalking.
The Complaint alleges that Suppo was the subject of harassment for over a year and the allegations include the following in part:
• Ominous staring;
• Unwanted physical touching (including touching her face and arm);
• Unwanted requests for dates;
• Being recorded on video by the customer’s cell phone video;
• Overly intrusive personal questions.
The Complaint further alleges that despite Suppo’s repeated complaints to her managers about the customer’s behavior, Costco’s management failed to take sufficient steps to protect her. It was alleged that “when the situation persisted and the employee complained to the police, Costco management allegedly yelled at her and told her to be friendly to the customer.” That alleged failure created and tolerated a sexually hostile working environment for Suppo, resulting in her need to obtain an Order of Protection and, ultimately, to Suppo’s constructive discharge. The EEOC is seeking to enjoin the Company from continuing the alleged discriminatory practices, and to pay Suppo compensatory damages and punitive damages.
Costco has denied the allegations and stated “it had a comprehensive anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies.” Costco argues that it “responded swiftly, firmly, timely, and appropriately” to Suppo’s concerns about the customer’s behavior. Costco also rejects the allegations of constructive discharge, arguing that Suppo took an “indefinite leave of absence” and failed to give Costco an effort to take remedial actions. Costco filed a motion for summary judgment.
In response, the court denied Costco’s motion, and stated that it found sufficient evidence that the customer had sexually harassed Suppo, that the behavior escalated over time, and, all told, amounted to a hostile work environment. The court stated, too, that it “found evidence Costco failed to take reasonable steps to stop the harassment, noting that Costco waited more than a year to ban the customer from the store.” The court did grant Costco’s motion for summary judgment on the constructive discharge claim because she was terminated and did not resign. A jury will decide the harassment claims.
Many sexual harassment cases are a “he said versus she said” scenario. Here, the facts may focus on Suppo’s complaints about the alleged harassment to Costco and its reaction. If an employer takes prompt remedial action, the crux of a harassment claim may be undercut. It is alleged that Costco did not take prompt action, which it denies – this will be a key question for the jury to decide. If the harassment was a one time incident and the customer was banned or the customer and Suppo were otherwise separated, a case may not have been filed but the conduct was alleged to taken place over a year. The length of the harassment and the severity (e.g., was the harassment limited to verbal statements or did it include physical conduct) will certainly be focused on. In preparation for trial, Costco is seeking Suppo’s medical records and her mental health or medical condition may come into play. That could serve as a deterrent to Suppo or buttress her claim depending on the facts.
Each situation is different. Many cases involving third party harassment may not succeed. It is important to have your specific case evaluated by an experienced employment lawyer. If you have any questions about sexual harassment in the workplace, contact our NY Employment Lawyer for a confidential consultation to learn your rights and options.
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