The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently announced that a Spokane Valley, Washington-based HVAC contractor will pay $361,000 to settle a sexual harassment case. The owner and president of the contractor, which operates as Air Control Heating & Electric, Inc., allegedly sexually harassed several female employees. Meanwhile, other company management failed to act to prevent the conduct. The EEOC continues to pursue violators as it enforces anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws under its federal authority. In another significant EEOC sexual harassment case, a Michigan-based company paid $175,000 in a harassment lawsuit that also involved retaliation.
Background of the Sexual Harassment Case
The EEOC filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington. In EEOC v. Air Control Heating & Air Conditioning, Inc. d/b/a Air Control Heating & Electric, Inc. (Case No. 2:21-cv-00347), the HVAC contractor’s owner, Maxim Johnston, sexually harassed female employees nearly every day since 2010. Furthermore, Johnston repeatedly stated that women did not belong in the building trades. In detail, the sexual harassment case covered a wide range of illegal and highly offensive behaviors. Johnston’s behavior allegedly included graphic comments, explicit innuendoes, touching without consent, unwanted remarks about the employees’ bodies, leering, requests to wear more revealing clothing, and offering strip club tickets to the female employees.
Despite multiple reports and the significant time frame in which they took place, corporate directors did not take prompt and effective action to stop the harassment. At one point, the employer’s Human Resources representative even called the company’s workplace culture a “sewer.” Surprisingly, despite sufficient evidence and federal laws forbidding harassment, company directors allowed Johnston to continue his behavior.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Harassment
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), harassment is a type of illegal employment discrimination. Accordingly, the law defines harassment as unwelcome conduct that is based on one or more protected classes. These classes include race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy), national origin, age, disability, or genetic information (including family medical history). Markedly, harassment is illegal when:
- Enduring the harassment becomes a condition of continued employment, and
- It is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.
In addition, the law requires employers to try to prevent and correct behavior reasonably. Employers are responsible for supervisors or other employees over whom they control. Finally, Title VII also protects employees who object to discrimination from retaliation or any adverse employment action against an employee exercising their rights.
Settlement in the Sexual Harassment Case
Ultimately, the company agreed to pay $361,000 to settle the sexual harassment case. Markedly, this is the maximum compensatory damages applicable to an employer of this company’s size. The EEOC will divide the settlement among seven current and former female employees involved in the suit. It includes full back pay for one female employee who quit.
In addition, the company will be subject to federal oversight as a part of the five-year consent decree. The decree requires the company to retain an independent consultant to:
- help develop anti-discrimination policies and procedures,
- receive and investigate any complaints of sexual harassment and retaliation, and
- determine corrective action to remedy those complaints.
Finally, the company will implement companywide anti-discrimination training, individual training for the owner Johnston, and specific policies to ensure accountability. Assuredly, the EEOC will continue to monitor the company for the entire five-year decree to ensure they comply with its responsibilities.