By Christopher DeGroff and Robb McFadden

Fresh on the heels of a full defense verdict in one of the EEOC’s highest profile sexual harassment cases of 2012-2013, the Commission was dealt another blow on April 19, 2013, when the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington dismissed a closely related retaliation case because of the lack of admissible evidence supporting those claims. The ruling — EEOC v. Evans Fruit, No 10-CV-3093, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 56668 (E.D. Wash. Apr. 19, 2013) — represents another significant setback for the Commission and a rebuke of its questionable litigation tactics.  

Factual Background

In EEOC v. Evans Fruit, No 10-CV-3093 (E.D. Wash.), the EEOC sued Evans Fruit on behalf of 10 charging parties who claimed that they were retaliated against for participating in the EEOC’s investigation into allegations of sexual harassment. The retaliation claims stemmed from a meeting between EEOC attorneys and the claimants, a group of former Evans Fruit employees, at a public library in Sunnyside, Washington. One of the charging parties recognized two men at the library who he believed were Evans Fruit employees. The EEOC argued that the employees’ presence at the library was meant to intimidate the claimants and further asserted that several of the individuals were threatened after they attended the meeting. In moving for summary judgment, Evans Fruit challenged the evidentiary basis for the EEOC’s assertions and argued that there was no proof of retaliation. 

The Court’s Decision

On April 19, 2013, Judge Lonny R. Suko granted Evans Fruit’s motion for summary judgment, dismissing all 10 of the EEOC’s retaliation claims. Significantly, the Court noted that unlike sexual harassment claims that take into account whether the alleged victim subjectively believed the work environment was hostile or abusive, retaliation claims are based on an objective, reasonable person standard. Thus, although “out of court statements relayed to a sexual harassment claimant regarding similar acts of harassment in the workplace may be admissible for the purpose of showing the effect on the listener (the claimant),” such statements serve no legitimate purpose in evaluating the charging parties’ retaliation claims because the “subjective effect of a statement on a particular claimant is irrelevant.”  Id. at *10.

In reviewing the EEOC’s purported evidence of retaliation, the Court found that none of the claimants could reasonably have believed that their presence at the library was retaliatory based on what they knew at the time, particularly because all but one of the claimants were either unaware of the two men’s presence at the library or did not believe their presence was significant at the time. Critically, the Court ruled that the claimants’ testimony that they later came to believe that they had been retaliated against — after they learned of the men’s identities and heard that threats had been made by third parties against those who attended the meeting — was based on out of court statements offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted. Finding that nearly all of the EEOC’s evidence was based on inadmissible hearsay, the Court granted Evans Fruit’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed all 10 of the claimants’ retaliation claims.

Implications For Employers

The EEOC has shown from time to time that it will play fast and loose with the “facts,” oftentimes claiming that second-hand rumors, gossip, and even its own pleadings and arguments are “evidence” of Title VII violations. Courtesy of the rule against hearsay, the Court’s decision in Evans Fruit shattered these smoke-and-mirrors tactics. 

Readers can also find this post on our Workplace Class Action blog here.