$250,000 jury verdict for harassment victim versus Costco

Lawsuit alleged sexual harassment of a female employee by a male customer.

In December 2016, a federal jury awarded a female Costco employee $250,000 in compensatory damages for the harassment she endured at work. This case is unique because the harassment was not committed by a co-worker, but by a male Costco customer who harassed and stalked the female employee, according to a news release issued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). The EEOC prosecuted the case on behalf of the female Costco employee, alleging that Costco failed to intervene, despite knowledge of the customer's behavior towards its employee and thus, created a hostile work environment. The hostility included unwelcome touching, physical advances and stalking, which the employee reported to Costco management.

The EEOC's allegations included that Costco did not adequately respond to the female employee's complaints to either correct or prevent the harassment. Despite the fact that the harasser was not a Costco employee, Costco's actions, or inactions in this instance, were alleged to be in violation of the employee's rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under that statute, an employer like Costco is obligated to take reasonable steps to provide a workplace without sexual harassment, or harassment "based on one's sex."

The complaint was first filed with the EEOC, but then was brought by the EEOC on behalf of the employee in the Federal District Court in the Northern District of Illinois after initial conciliation efforts did not resolve the matter.

Filing a charge of discrimination with the EEOC

The EEOC is the federal administrative agency with primary responsibility for enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws. Anyone who believes that he or she has been the victim of employment discrimination, including sexual harassment by a customer, in violation of federal civil rights laws can file a charge of discrimination with the agency. Filing a timely charge of discrimination with an administrative agency like the EEOC is a prerequisite to initiating a formal lawsuit in federal court. For a timely EEOC charge to be brought in Wisconsin or Illinois, the complaint must be filed within 300 days of the alleged harm.

Note that certain jurisdictional limitations apply to EEOC charges. For example, employers with less than 15 employees (discrimination or retaliation based on race, color, religion, sex, pregnancy, national origin, disability or genetic information) or less than 20 employees (discrimination or retaliation based on age) may not be covered by laws enforced by the EEOC. In these instances, an employee may have viable claims under state or local laws that prohibit discrimination, for which a different filing deadline may apply.

Seek legal advice

In addition to these jurisdictional issues, there are a host of complicated factual and legal issues to navigate in an employment case involving allegations of discrimination or retaliation. It is imperative that victims of sexual harassment, discrimination or retaliation seek counsel from an experienced employment attorney as early as possible to understand what options are available for legal relief. Time is of the essence because of the strict and different deadlines that apply.

Fox & Fox, S.C.

The lawyers at Fox & Fox, S.C., have represented employees throughout the Midwest and beyond in matters involving sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation. They have a proven track record of winning matters before juries, judges and administrative law judges and obtaining large settlements for their clients. With Wisconsin offices in Madison and Milwaukee, and an Illinois office in downtown Chicago, Fox & Fox, S.C. represents employees throughout Wisconsin and in Chicagoland .