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EEOC settles sexual harassment and retaliation suit against Goodwill

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently issued a press release announcing an $850,000 settlement in a sexual harassment and retaliation suit against Goodwill Industries of the East Bay Area and an affiliated employer.

The money will be paid to eight employees, some of whom have developmental disabilities. Six were janitors who alleged regular sexual harassment by their supervisor. Two were managers who alleged employer retaliation for supporting the women's complaints.

The EEOC is the federal agency responsible for enforcing Title VII and similar laws prohibiting discrimination and harassment based on a protected characteristic such as gender, race, religion, age and disability. The laws also ban employers from retaliating against employees who complain or against other employees who support victims by cooperating in investigations, assisting with reporting and engaging in similar advocacy.

An employee may file a discrimination complaint with the agency, which may investigate the charges and could file a federal lawsuit like the one against Goodwill. According to the press release, the agency filed this suit after first having tried to settle using its internal conciliation process.

The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) has the same mission as EEOC, but instead enforces state antidiscrimination laws, which in many ways are stricter. EEOC and DFEH have a work-sharing agreement so only one complaint normally needs to be filed. If a complaint is filed with both, the agency with the earlier filing will investigate.

The interplay among these two agencies and federal and state courts is complex, so immediate legal advice is warranted if a California employer faces complaints or lawsuits filed in any of them.

Preventative steps

In addition to money damages, the Goodwill settlement requires the employers to take concrete steps to prevent future harassment. For example, they must revise their internal policies and procedures, including those around complaints and investigations; establish "supervisor accountability policies"; retain a consultant; train their workforces; and report on progress to the EEOC.

This lawsuit underscores the importance of proactive prevention of workplace conditions that could foster unlawful harassment or discrimination. Bringing an experienced California employment attorney on board to advise and direct establishment of policies, procedures and internal practices is an important first step.

California employers have significant responsibility to keep their workplaces free from unlawful discrimination, harassment and retaliation. At our law firm, we provide guidance and training to Northern California employers to help them comply with these laws, including help with establishing policies, creating complaint and investigation procedures, drafting employment manuals, and training supervisors and employees.

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