apple-full2.jpgBy Christopher DeGroff, Gerald L. Maatman, and Laura Maechtlen

After years of smash-mouth litigation, it was a clean sweep for a large agri-business employer this week in one of the EEOC’s highest profile cases of 2012-2013 – a full defense verdict on April 3, 2013 by a jury of seven men and two women in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington. The case – EEOC v. Evans Fruit, No. 10-CV-3033 (E.D. Wash.) – is a stunning defeat for the Commission. Evans Fruit was represented by a team from the top-rated Seattle/Yakima based Stokes Lawrence firm, later joined by Seyfarth Shaw as supporting strategic counsel. 

In EEOC v. Evans Fruit, the EEOC brought highly controversial and dramatic allegations against one of the nation’s largest apple producers, claiming that it tolerated a sexually hostile work environment. The Commission’s claim began with three female claimants alleging that certain co-workers made unwelcome sexual comments and advances. During the course of pre-trial discovery (and after a significant government “outreach” program including town-hall meetings with EEOC lawyers), the number of women claiming harassment swelled to 26. The defense team was able to cut the ranks of harassment claimants to 15 by trial.

Not insignificantly, during the years the case was pending, the District Court of the Eastern District of Washington was faced with some of the thorniest legal issues that arise in EEOC-initiated cases, including an early preliminary injunction issue and a stinging rebuke to the EEOC’s pretrial conciliation tactics. The EEOC nevertheless repeatedly pointed to the Evans Fruit case as one of its flagship litigation matters as early as 2011. The case was poised to be one of the EEOC’s most important matters of 2013.

But it all came down to trial.

Led by the Stokes Lawrence trial team, Evans Fruit spent a grueling two and a half weeks sparring with the EEOC’s complicated trial tactics and blunting the sensational evidence presented by the EEOC.  Evans Fruit relied heavily on its theme that the Company had been successful over the years by building a culture premised on trust, respect and common sense – a culture where harassment would have not been condoned had it been reported. That theme, coupled with significant credibility issues with the claimants, resonated with the jurors, who found that the EEOC was unable to prove a hostile work environment for any of its claimants by a preponderance of the evidence. In short, a complete defense win.

The EEOC has aggressively pursued companies employing what the government calls “vulnerable populations” like the claimants in the Evans Fruit case, elevating this to one of its six national priorities for 2012-2016. In this case, however, the EEOC’s aggressive approach to engage Evans Fruit at all costs ultimately collapsed. Brendan Monahan, Evans Fruit’s lead attorney, noted that “[t]he jury’s verdict represents justice and a big dose of reality …. [w]e can only hope this verdict changes the confrontational manner in which the EEOC approaches its claims against members of the agriculture industry.”

While rewarding to employers facing similar issues with the EEOC, the Evans Fruit case is a reminder that in some instances, taking the EEOC on through trial is the only viable business option. 

Readers can also find this post on our EEOC Countdown blog here.