Horning Brothers Settles Sexual Harassment Claims with Attorney General
Quincy-based Horning Brothers, a vegetable packing house is set to pay $525,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson alleging a supervisor groped, propositioned, and retaliated against female workers over many years. The settlement is believed to be the largest for a civil rights case in the state of Washington’s history.
“No woman in this state should be forced to accept sexual harassment as a condition of her employment,” Ferguson said. “This reflects how seriously we take this issue, and the terrible actions that were taken against these plaintiffs.”
The Attorney General’s lawsuit was filed in April 2017 in U.S. District Court in Eastern Washington and named Horning and supervisor Hermilo Cruz as defendants. The suit sought enforcement actions under the 1964 federal Civil Rights Act.
There were more than 96,000 agriculture jobs in Washington in 2016, according to court documents. Women hold about 28 percent of those jobs and sexual harassment has become an occupational hazard that “profoundly impacts” their ability to work safely.
Cruz was a supervisor of an onion packing facility that employed eight to ten people full time and up to forty seasonal workers. Since at least 2012, he hired only women to the packing line. The Attorney General’s investigation began in 2016 and was conducted along with the Northwest Justice Project, which represented five workers.
The allegations against Cruz included “requiring or attempting to require that employees have sex with him” to keep their jobs, according to the complaint. He also made overt sexual gestures, comments about employees’ appearances, and groped them. Those who didn’t comply or approve of his actions were terminated.
“They were told, ‘if you are happy, you are free to stay. If you are aren’t, you can leave,’” Ferguson said. “There are lots of other people who want your job.’”
“Working there was hard, emotional, but it was something I had to do. I was a single mother at the time, and I needed that job,” one alleged victim, Rosaura Hernandez, said. “The actions taken by Hermilo were cruel…and it was a dark moment in my life. But now that this case is over, I want to say I’m very proud of my coworkers and myself.”
Horning Brothers denied all claims, stating, “In the end, after the attorneys for the state of Washington and the Northwest Justice Project spent more than $1.4 million in taxpayer money to litigate a case against a small family farm, Horning Brothers LLC made the business decision to work out a monetary settlement that was seen as more cost-effective than continuing to incur significant attorneys’ fees and costs of its own. While Horning Brothers LLC believes it would have prevailed at trial, the time, expense, and energy needed to see the case through an extensive trial, with possible appeals, was thought to be better spent elsewhere.”
On Sept. 11, 2018, Republican Judge Thomas Rice granted a motion for partial summary judgment. He ruled that Horning Brothers had an ineffective discrimination policy and did not act promptly after being notified about alleged harassment by an employee.
Under the terms of the settlement, Cruz can never hold a supervisory position at Horning Brothers again, the company must have procedures for reporting harassment, and semiannual reporting to the Attorney General’s Office is required.