Sexual Harassment of Developmentally Disabled Wal-Mart Employee

Wal-Mart, our nation's largest retail chain, has developed a reputation for refusing to settle lawsuits. However, there are always worthy exceptions. This discrimination case in Ohio was one of them. The retail giant agreed to settle a sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit filed by the EEOC on behalf of an intellectually challenged employee.

The story of Jamie Wells

Jamie Wells was a developmentally disabled Wal-Mart associate in the Akron store's lawn & garden department for more than 11 years. According to the lawsuit, her disability made her particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment. From April 2005 until January 2011, Francis Cameron, a 72-year-old male co-worker subjected Wells to sexual harassment, including sexual touching.

According to a clinical psychologist, Wells was "essentially a young child who is physically an adult," but who lacks "any 'adult' aspect or functioning, intellectually, academically, emotionally, or socially." In other words, Wells was incapable of consenting to the sexual harassment to which she was being subjected and was easily manipulated by her co-worker.

Wal-Mart was alleged to have allowed the harassment to continue

The EEOC alleged in the lawsuit that Wal-Mart management became aware of Cameron's "inappropriate conduct" when it first began in 2005. Wells was issued a reprimand, but the harasser was allowed to continue to work. After five years of continued sexual abuse, Wells reported Cameron herself and Cameron was terminated. However, in January of 2011, Cameron complained that he had been wrongfully terminated. Wal-Mart's response was to terminate Wells, as well.

What did Wal-Mart do wrong?

In employment law, sexual harassment or a hostile work environment refers to a workplace where employees are subjected to unwanted sexual behavior from co-workers. Specific facts must be proven in order to be successful on a sexual harassment claim. One of the most important elements is showing that management was aware of the harassment, but did nothing to stop it or prevent it from recurring. In this case, the EEOC alleged that Wal-Mart officials were aware of the harassment from the very beginning and did nothing for more than five years. The fact that Wal-Mart knew about the sexual abuse but did nothing to investigate the claim, or prevent it from continuing, would make Wal-Mart liable for the abuse.

The case was settled and injunctive relief was ordered

In addition to settling this case for $363,419, a consent decree was entered requiring Wal-Mart to provide sexual harassment training to managers at the Akron store and to the human resources managers who were responsible for that store.

The training must include instruction on how to prevent the sexual harassment of intellectually disabled employees. Wal-Mart is also required to post a notice in the workplace explaining employee rights and employer obligations under Title VII, and submit reports to the EEOC during the decree's three-year period. The purpose of the training and reporting requirements is to further the EEOC's law enforcement responsibilities, to ensure that harassment does not recur.

Debra Lawrence, regional attorney for the EEOC, had this to say:

The EEOC guidelines and Supreme Court rulings make it crystal-clear that employers must be accountable for failure to take prompt and appropriate action to stop harassment and for punishing employees who complain about harassment. Ms. Wells was a loyal employee who had worked at Wal-Mart for 11 years, but her developmental disability made her vulnerable to predatory sexual behavior. The EEOC is here to protect the rights of people like her, and we are pleased that Wal-Mart has come forward, at an early stage, to resolve this matter without the need for further litigation.

If you believe you are the victim of sexual harassment, review your employer's anti-harassment policy and follow its procedures to report the conduct. If you have more questions or need legal advice, contact Wrady & Michel, LLC, either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880.

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