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PRESS RELEASE
7-15-10

Federal Court Bars Employer’s Questions About Immigration And Sexual History In EEOC Sexual Harassment Case

Judge Grants Order Against Inquiries that "Intimidate ... Needlessly"

PORTLAND, Ore. — A federal district court has ordered an employer to stop questioning Hispanic farm workers who filed charges of sexual harassment and retaliation with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) concerning their immigration status, employment history and, in one woman’s case, her sexual history. In June 2009, the federal agency sued Willamette Tree Wholesale, Inc. of Molalla, Ore., alleging that workers were sexually harassed and threatened in retaliation for reporting the harassment. The EEOC also charged that one Latina farm worker was repeatedly raped by her supervisor.

The EEOC, together with the claimants represented by the Oregon Law Center, sought a protective order in response to requests by Willamette Tree’s lawyers for certain information. They argued that the company’s inquiries would have a chilling effect. In an order issued last week, U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Papak of U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, Portland division, specifically prohibited the company’s attorneys from asking questions concerning the alleged rape victim’s immi­gration status, whether she has ever used another name, her prior sexual history and her reasons for not contacting police after the sexual assaults. It also bars discovery of the immigration status and third-party employment records for all workers participating in the case.

The court stated that “the public interest would be far better served” if meritorious discrimination claims were presented by immigrants regardless of their status, rather than if the “potentially chilling effect” of scrutinizing plaintiffs' documentation prevented workers from coming forward.

Judge Papak also found that the female farm worker’s sexual history is “not clearly relevant” to the claims of the case and would have “clear prejudicial effect” on the lawsuit: “to permit Willamette Tree to make inquiries into [her] sexual or romantic history would intimidate [her] needlessly.” He rejected Willamette Tree’s arguments to depose the worker as to why she did not contact law enforce­ment after the sexual violence, by observing that the woman had already testified on record “that her supervisor threatened her and her family with violent reprisal should she tell anyone that he had raped her.”

EEOC Regional Attorney William R. Tamayo said, “Judge Papak’s order gives hope to victims of sexual harassment at work. By refusing to re-victimize the victim with needless attack on her sexual history and immigration status, the court provides key protections not only for the individual involved in this case, but ultimately for others who have been in her situation: immigrants, females, workers driven to keep their jobs, and the targets of sexual assault and retaliation.”

“The EEOC has seen an alarming rise in harassment cases involving egregious sexual assaults being committed against female workers, particularly those from immigrant communities,” Tamayo continued. These include suits against AllStar Fitness in Seattle on behalf of a Latina janitor who allegedly had been raped multiple times; La Pianta L.C.C., which does business as Frenchman Hills Vineyard in Othello, Wash., alleging that a supervisor sexually assaulted a Latina worker; and a suit with the Oregon Law Center against Woodburn, Ore.-based Wilcox Farms resulting in a $260,000 settlement in a sexual harassment case that involved a physical sexual assault. Additionally, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a jury verdict of $1,000,000 in favor of the EEOC against Coalinga, Calif.-based Harris Farms on behalf of a Latina farm worker who charged she was raped by her supervisor and retaliated against.

Mavel Morales, attorney with the Oregon Law Center, stated, “Our client had to overcome enormous challenges to speak out against sexual harassment in this case. We are grateful that Judge Papak has prohibited the defendants from pursuing a line of questioning that would needlessly intimidate her and discourage workers from coming forward with similar claims in the future.”

The case (EEOC v. Willamette Tree Wholesale, Inc. (CV-09-690-PK) is scheduled for trial on February 8, 2011.

The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about the EEOC is available on its web site at www.eeoc.gov.