Talks set over alleged abuse
EEOC originally demanded $2 million in compensation
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
A federal judge has canceled an upcoming trial in the sexual harassment case against a Washington apple producer.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which filed the lawsuit, has instead been ordered to enter settlement talks with defendant Evans Fruit of Cowiche, Wash.
U.S. District Judge Lonny Suko said the federal agency didn't sufficiently try to resolve the dispute between Evans Fruit and several employees before filing a complaint in 2010, as required by law.
The EEOC demanded nearly $2 million in compensation in damages on behalf of female farmworkers who claimed they had been groped and harassed by supervisors at the farm company.
Evans Fruit responded by saying the company had seen no evidence to support such a demand. The company continued to ask for more information after the EEOC lowered the proposed settlement amount to $1 million.
The agency then ended the negotiations and filed a lawsuit against the farm.
Suko said the EEOC did not make a "good faith" attempt to resolve the dispute outside court because it didn't justify the amount of damages or provide more specifics about the allegations.
The judge said "that EEOC acted unreasonably in failing to respond flexibly to all of Evans Fruit's requests for information and abruptly terminating the conciliation process without explanation for doing so."
All proceedings in the case have been stayed and the trial, previously set for June 18, has been canceled while the parties seek mediation.
The judge's order doesn't require the settlement talks to encompass a related EEOC lawsuit that accuses Evans Fruit of making retaliatory threats against workers involved in the sexual harassment allegations.
However, Suko said the parties could agree to include that case in their negotiations. The judge previously entered a preliminary injunction barring the company from taking any retaliatory actions against the accusers.