CHICAGO — The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) will take on wholesale retailer Costco in a jury trial on behalf of a female employee who was allegedly harassed and stalked while working at the company’s Glenview warehouse store.
Judge Ruben Castillo, Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago, sided with the federal agency in a preliminary hearing Dec. 16. The court said questions exist over whether Costco management violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in how it responded to a female employee's request to intervene on her behalf against a man who the employee alleged was repeatedly harassing her at the north suburban store.
The EEOC took action on behalf of the former employee, identified as Dawn Suppo. According to the complaint, Costco failed to provide a safe working environment, as required by law. The Civil Rights Act protects employees against sexual discrimination, which Suppo claimed to have faced repeatedly, even after reporting the incidents to management.
She reported the man acted inappropriately by staring ominously, following her around the store, touching her and asking intrusive questions. Suppo eventually told store managers the man seemed to be recording her on his phone, at which point the manager suggested the member no longer shop at that Costco.
The court found evidence Costco management failed to take any action on behalf of the employee, which the EEOC claims to be negligent and unlawful behavior. According toRobin Shea, who has followed the case and others like it as an employment litigator at Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete in Winston-Salem, N.C., sexual harassment policies in the workplace must be outlined early and often to avoid breaching Title VII in any way.
“If employees serve customers or the public as part of their jobs, employers should address customer harassment in new-employee orientation” said Shea.
“At the least, the training should include review of the company's position that harassment by third parties - whether vendors, customers, or others - is not tolerated and that employees should immediately report any harassing behavior to a designated individual or department. I would also let employees know that it's better to be safe than sorry - in other words, 'When in doubt, report,'" she said.
"It is dangerous for an employer to encourage employees to 'wait and see' whether the behavior gets worse before they report it. Employees should understand that they will not suffer any job-related consequences for reporting inappropriate behavior by customers or other third parties,” said Shea.
One caveat in this case is the health of Suppo. After filing complaints of sexual harassment, Suppo went on medical leave and never returned to work, causing her eventual termination. The court will have access to her medical records for the upcoming trial, as well as an independent medical examination of Suppo.
“I think the case serves as a good warning to employers in the retail industry, and other industries or governmental agencies where employees serve the public, to make sure that employees understand that they do not have to tolerate inappropriate behavior from customers or the public or other third parties, and that employees know how to report any problems," Shea said. "Of course, once an employer has the information, it must act quickly to address the behavior, and the action taken must be meaningful."
The court announced dates for jury selection and a potential trial date will be set in January.
Costco is represented in the action by the firm of Seyfarth Shaw, of Chicago.