DOJ Nabs a Win for Harassed HI Employee
by Julie St. Louis, Court House News, December 23, 2015
HONOLULU (CN) - A federal jury on Tuesday found the state of Hawaii and the Hawaii Department of Transportation's airports division violated a former employee's civil rights by turning a blind eye to sexual harassment.
The jury's verdict stems from a discrimination case filed in 2014 on behalf of Sherry Valmoja by the Justice Department, as part of a cooperative project designed to ensure vigorous enforcement of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by state and local government employers.
Valmoja originally filed her sexual harassment claims against Hawaii's transportation department with the Honolulu field office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which bumped it up to a higher level for further action.
"Sexual harassment remains a significant problem for our nation's workforce," Equal Employment Opportunity Commission chairwoman Jenny R. Yang said. "EEOC takes very seriously its obligation to obtain redress for employees who are victims of these egregious practices."
Evidence presented in the initial complaint and at trial showed that Valmoja experienced sexual harassment in the form of lewd and unwelcome comments and physical intimidation by a co-worker during her employment as an bomb-sniffing dog handler at the Honolulu International Airport.
The unwelcome conduct and intimidation began as early as November 2008, when both Valmoja and her co-worker were employed by a private company that contracted with the state. It continued after both became state employees.
In one example, the co-worker called her his "brown baby," repeatedly stated that he "likes the way she puts her makeup on, the way her perfume smells and it makes him want to do things to her," Valmoja's complaint stated.
The jury found that despite timely complaints by Valmoja about her co-worker's conduct, the state defendants failed to take prompt and effective action to remedy the harassment - which continued until March 2011 - and created an abusive and hostile working environment.
"This verdict serves as a reminder to employers that they must remain vigilant in preventing and remedying harassment in their workplace," Yang said.
The jury awarded Valmoja $38,000 for the pain and suffering she endured because of the harassment.
The Justice Department has asked for a permanent injunction prohibiting Hawaii from discriminating against its employees, review and revision of its sexual harassment policies and complaint procedures and training for its employees on discrimination, according to a statement by the department.
Decisions about the additional injunctive relief are still pending.
"The Justice Department vigorously enforces Title VII to ensure that people can work free from sexual harassment and retaliation," said principal Deputy Assistant Attorney Vanita Gupta, head of the DOJ's civil rights division. "This jury's verdict sends a loud message and a clear reminder that we will continue to effectively combat sex-based discrimination whenever it occurs in a public-sector workplace."