State’s lawsuit against Horning Brothers resolved
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced on Oct. 18 that Horning Brothers, LLC, a local agricultural company, will pay $525,000 in a civil rights enforcement action claiming sexual harassment of multiple female agricultural workers, discriminatory hiring and sex-segregated employment practices and retaliation against workers who reported alleged improper conduct, according to information from the AG’s office.
The Northwest Justice Project, which worked on the case with the Attorney General’s Office, referred the case and represented five of the workers who intervened as plaintiffs, according to the AG’s press release. Wing Luke Civil Rights Unit Chief Colleen Melody and Assistant Attorney General Patricio Marquez led the case.
In an email to the Post-Register from Horning Brothers on Oct. 23, the company said it had resolved the dispute. The statement reads:
“Horning Brothers, LLC resolved the dispute with the State of Washington and Northwest Justice Project without liability and without any determinations that the allegations against Horning Brothers, LLC were true.
“Horning Brothers, LLC continues to deny all claims asserted against the company.
“The overwhelming majority of lawsuits settle before going to trial. This case was no different. 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.”
In April 2017, the AG’s office announced an accusation against Horning Brothers and a foreman, Hermilo Cruz, of violating Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Washington Law Against Discrimination.
A complaint alleged that since at least 2012, Horning Brothers and its onion-packing shed foreman, Cruz, only hired women to sort onions on the packing line and limited the hiring of women for other positions. Cruz and Horning Brothers were accused of reprimanding, firing or failing to rehire employees who rejected or complained about the alleged behavior of Cruz.
The AG office’s recent announcement on the case states that the women employees will each receive up to $98,000, that the consent decree still must be approved by a federal judge, and the consent decree, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington, also requires Horning Brothers to:
• Prohibit Cruz from holding any supervisory position at Horning Brothers
• Implement employee complaint procedures for reporting harassment, discrimination and retaliation
• Institute investigative procedures to ensure proper investigations of complaints of discrimination, harassment and retaliation
• Provide semi-annual reporting to the Attorney General’s Office and notify the Attorney General of any complaints of discrimination, sexual harassment or retaliation received from its employees
• Adopt a complete non-discrimination and anti-retaliation policy approved by the Attorney General’s Office
• Provide annual trainings to Horning Brothers’ management on their obligations under Title VII and the Washington Law Against Discrimination, and also provide training to its workforce
• Make new policies and procedures available to Horning Brothers’ seasonal and full-time workforce in both English and Spanish
The attorney general’s press release continued: Cruz controlled who got jobs in the onion-packing shed, which were highly sought after because of the difficulty of finding winter agricultural work in Grant County. Employees feared that resisting Cruz’s advances or reporting his behavior would cause them to lose their jobs, according to the press release.
The Wing Luke Civil Rights Unit was created in 2015 to protect the rights of all Washington residents by enforcing state and federal anti-discrimination laws.
The Washington Law Against Discrimination prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, marital status, sexual orientation, disability or honorably discharged veteran or military status.
By Post-Register Staff