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,
online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880.