- The owner and president of Eden Foods, Inc. regularly subjected female staff to inappropriate touching and sexual comments in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, according to a complaint filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission April 25 (EEOC v. Eden Foods, No. 2:22-cv-10881-BAF-KGA (E.D. Mich. Jan. 1, 2018)).
- According to the complaint, since at least January 2017, Eden’s owner has subjected women to unwelcome touching on the “backs, buttocks, shoulders, legs, faces and heads,” and kissing on the face and head. He also used sexually explicit and misogynistic language. When one worker spoke to HR about the harassment, the owner “laughed and told the HR representative that ‘all these girls want me,’” the complaint said.
- “While we cannot comment on particulars, we absolutely deny these claims and will vigorously defend this company and its reputation,” Eden Foods wrote in a statement it provided to HR Dive. “For over 50 years, Eden Foods’ principles and goals have been grounded in attributes we strive to emulate in our everyday work and in the foods we take to market. We are principled, straightforward, forthright, and focused on excellence. Mutual respect and fair treatment remain paramount.”
Harassment is “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy), national origin, older age (beginning at age 40), disability, or genetic information (including family medical history),” according to the EEOC, and it becomes unlawful when “enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment” or “the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.”
Harassment claims often come down to determining how “severe or pervasive” the conduct was. For example, in the recent case of a nurse who sued her employer and alleged harassment, among other charges, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that while she had endured harassment in her job, it was neither severe nor pervasive enough to invoke the protection of Title VII.
In making its case on the pervasiveness of harassment by Eden Foods’ owner, the EEOC alleged “that female employees used a code word to warn each other when [the owner] approached. They would say the code word and everyone would be on alert to try and move or hide to not be stuck alone with or next to [the owner].” It also said he “inappropriately touched every female who held the social media coordinator position since 2017.”
The courts appear to be evolving in their consideration of severity and pervasiveness. Recently, for example, the 5th Circuit remanded a case a lower court dismissed in which an employee alleged that his supervisor’s use of a “single [racial] slur” created a hostile work environment.
While the lower court cited a 2004 opinion in which the 5th Circuit had declared that “a single utterance of a racial epithet, despicable as it is, cannot support a hostile work environment claim,” the 5th Circuit, on appeal, noted its 2007 decision that “[u]nder the totality of the circumstances test, a single incident of harassment, if sufficiently severe, [can] give rise to a viable Title VII claim.”