Class of Female Staffers Abused at Correctional Facilities, Federal Agency Charged
PHOENIX - The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has reinstated a class sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against The GEO Group, Inc., the federal agency announced yesterday. EEOC's suit charged that GEO, which operates and manages two prison facilities in Florence, Ariz., discriminated against female prison employees by subjecting them to physical and verbal harassment and retaliation.
According to EEOC's suit, Alice Hancock and a class of 20 female employees were sexually harassed at the Arizona State Prison-Florence West Facility and the Central Arizona Correctional Facility in Florence, Ariz.; both entities were managed by GEO under contract with the Arizona Department of Corrections. The physical sexual harassment allegedly included an incident where a male GEO manager grabbed and pinched the breasts and crotch of a female correctional officer. Also, EEOC claimed that at least one female employee was forced onto a desk, where a male GEO employee shoved apart her legs and kissed her. EEOC charged that the sexual harassment also included sexual comments and gestures, including a male officer calling a female officer "bitch" and "f---ing bitch" on a daily basis and making other lewd remarks and suggestions.
The complaint further charged that the female employees were subjected to retaliation when they reported or otherwise sought help from GEO management.
EEOC filed its lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona, CIV2:10-cv-02088 MHM, in September 2010, after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process. A similar suit was filed by the Arizona attorney general's office (ACRD), the agency that conducted the administrative investigation in this case, and the Ninth Circuit also reinstated that suit.
The trial court dismissed the claims of the women who were not identified until after EEOC filed suit. The court also dismissed the claims of two women which the court said were untimely, and another claim of one woman whose harassment was not actionable, according to the court. EEOC and ACRD appealed.
The Ninth Circuit issued a unanimous published decision yesterday siding with EEOC and ACRD and sending the case back to the trial court with instructions to reinstate EEOC's claims. The court agreed with the four arguments EEOC made on appeal. First, the Ninth Circuit relied on Mach Mining, LLC v. EEOC, 135 S. Ct. 1645 (2015), to hold that EEOC satisfied its pre-suit requirements, including investigation and conciliation. The court rejected GEO's argument that Title VII requires EEOC to identify all victims prior to suit or to conciliate on an individual basis. Second, the court agreed with EEOC that the 300-day limitation period of the statute ran from the date of the individual charge, not from the date of EEOC's reasonable cause determination. Third, the court held that EEOC could seek relief for individuals who experienced discrimination or retaliation after the determination letter, so long as the discrimination or retaliation was like or reasonably related to the charge or determination. Finally, the court held that EEOC had presented a factual question as to whether claimant Sofia Hines had been subjected to a hostile work environment; the court agreed that harassment need not be sexual in nature and that a jury could find the conduct here sufficiently severe or pervasive.
"The Ninth Circuit's decision was extremely gratifying," said EEOC General Counsel David Lopez. "The decision allows EEOC to proceed with its claims that 20 female corrections officers experienced sexual harassment and retaliation while they worked at two prisons operated by The GEO Group. This ruling means that the victims, who were brave enough to step forward and participate in EEOC's lawsuit, will now have their day in court."
EEOC Phoenix District Office Regional Attorney Mary Jo O'Neill said, "We are very pleased with the Ninth Circuit's decision. The court of appeals recognized that Title VII gives EEOC 'expansive discretion' in conciliating claims of discrimination."
EEOC Appellate Services attorney Anne Noel Occhialino, who argued the case before the Ninth Circuit, added, "The Ninth Circuit's decision is significant, as it confirms that EEOC may utilize discovery to find additional victims of discrimination and retaliation when it files a class suit."
EEOC's Phoenix District Office is responsible for processing charges of discrimination, administrative enforcement and the conduct of agency litigation in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, with offices in Albuquerque and Denver.
GEO is a multi-national provider of government-outsourced services specializing in the management of correctional, detention and mental health and residential facilities in North America, Australia, South Africa and the United Kingdom.
EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about EEOC is available on its web site at www.eeoc.gov.