YAKIMA, Wash. — Was an Evans Fruit ranch in Sunnyside the “sexual playground” of a foreman whose behavior went unchecked by the owners at the expense of female employees? Or is the company the victim of gold diggers and an overzealous federal bureaucracy?
Those were the stark contrasts a federal jury of seven men and two women must sift through over the next two or three weeks as a sexual-harassment lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) got under way Monday in U.S. District Court in Yakima.
Lawyers for the EEOC in 2010 sued Evans Fruit, one of the largest apple growers in the country, alleging female employees of the company’s operations in Sunnyside, Yakima County, were subjected to unwanted sexual advances by supervisors. The number of plaintiffs eventually grew to 26, but the list has since been whittled to15. U.S. District Judge Lonny Suko is presiding.
In opening statements, EEOC lawyer Carmen Flores accused company owners Bill and Jeanette Evans of failing to adopt or enforce a sexual-harassment policy until 2008 and only then after a series of complaints to the EEOC, which started in 2006.
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The common thread, she said, was Juan Marin, the longtime foreman of the firm’s Sunnyside operations.
Flores accused Marin of “turning this ranch into a sexual playground,” and said former female employees will testify Marin had a habit of forcing himself on them in his company truck and speaking of sexual encounters in vulgar terms.
She said former crew leaders will testify Marin ran the ranch “like God,” bragged about having sex with female employees and once got so angry with a female employee that he threatened to shoot up her home.
Anticipating the defense strategy of emphasizing the personal story of how the Evanses grew their original 10-acre orchard into a 7,500-acre international marketing powerhouse, Flores said Marin was fired only after he was found to have embezzled more than $500,000 from the company.
“This is no mom-and-pop operation,” she said, accusing the Evanses of caring about employees “only when they pick their pocketbook.”
Brendan Monahan, the lead lawyer for the company, countered by accusing the EEOC of recruiting plaintiffs, taking complaints out of context and demonizing Bill and Jeanette Evans.
Using a chart that strongly resembled a family tree, Monahan said most or all of the 15 plaintiffs can be traced back directly or indirectly to a former employee — a cousin of Marin who went to the EEOC only after a racketeering lawsuit he filed against Evans Fruit was thrown out of court. He did not elaborate about the lawsuit.
As predicted, Monahan told the jury how the Evanses built their company from a 10-acre orchard in 1949 to a combined operation the size of 10 square miles that produces 320 million pounds of apples annually and ships all over the world, particularly Asia.
Monahan said the company’s labor force swells seasonally from perhaps 100 or so in the winter to more than 2,000 during the fall harvest, and yet the EEOC was able to find only 15 plaintiffs going back several years despite a publicity campaign that included radio ads in the Lower Valley.
Contending that the Evanses’ son, Tim Evans, really ran the Sunnyside operation until his death from cancer in 2010, Monahan said the company had a “common-sense culture” in line with the family’s values and that none of the plaintiffs ever complained of sexual harassment while they were working for the company.
Monahan acknowledged the “hard fact” that Marin was fired for a “phantom payroll” scheme, and said Bill Evans will testify about the betrayal he felt at the hands of such a once-trusted employee.
But the heart of the case are the claims of the plaintiffs, which Monahan promised would be juicy.
“You’ve already heard some bizarre stories,” he said.
“You’re going to hear plenty more.”