COWICHE - Evans Fruit, one of the country's largest apple producers, is headed to mediation instead of court on claims of sexual harassment in the Sunnyside area.
The longtime Yakima Valley grower was sued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2010 on charges of sexual harassment in the work place.
The case stemmed from allegations against a company foreman working at a Sunnyside ranch, according to court documents.
In a decision handed down on May 24, District Court Judge Lonny R. Suko said the EEOC "did not engage in a good faith conciliation effort" with Cowiche-based Evans Fruit.
The EEOC brought a nearly $2 million suit claiming 26 female employees were harassed by the Evans Fruit foreman, who is no longer with the company.
Suko's decision denied the federal agency's motion for a partial summary judgment, and tossed out a trial scheduled to start in a Yakima federal court on June 18.
Evans sought to dismiss the claims.
Brendan Monahan is the attorney for Evans Fruit, and he says the EEOC initially identified seven women in the suit. "We were not made aware there were 19 more until six months to a year after the lawsuit started," he said.
According to court documents, the apple producer said the EEOC did not attempt a conciliation effort on behalf of each claim as the firm contends is required under federal law. In addition, the federal agency did not name all of the claimants in the case, Evans Fruit officials claimed in the court document.
Suko agreed to the extent he ordered the EEOC to negotiate with Evans Fruit instead of going to trial.
According to court documents, the claim for dismissal is stayed, pending the outcome of mediation later this month under the supervision of a federal judge from Oregon.
"Evans Fruit is appreciative of the opportunity to participate in a facilitated settlement conference with the EEOC," Monahan said. "In the unfortunate event that we may be unable to resolve our differences, Evans Fruit will be looking forward to the court's ruling on its motion to dismiss the EEOC's claims."
Monahan said the mediation could likely include discussions on a second suit the EEOC brought against Evans Fruit alleging threats and intimation against 10 employees who agreed to testify in the sexual harassment case. He said all 10 are former employees.
The judge's order to mediate instead of going to trial is a disappointment for the EEOC. In January 2011, the agency held a press conference in Granger touting an injunction against Evans Fruit in the sexual harassment case.
William Tamayo, a regional attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, spoke at that press conference.
He and the agency are taking a subdued approach heading into mediation.
"It is what it is," Tamayo said of the ruling. "The judge disagreed (with the EEOC) and believed that with the resources we've put into the case we'd be better off to settle."
He did not have a tally for the government's costs in the case to date.
Negotiations between Evans Fruit and the EEOC will be held June 28 and 29.