SPLC Wins Settlement for Woman Sexually Assaulted at Work; Employer to Reform Policies

Tuscarora Yarns Inc. of Mt. Pleasant, N.C. will enforce an improved sexual harassment policy as the result of a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) on behalf of a Latina factory worker who was sexually assaulted and brutalized by the plant manager after she had earlier reported his sexual harassment to officials at the company. These significant changes are a part of a settlement in which the yarn company has also agreed to pay $230,000 to settle the sexual harassment allegations.

“There is no amount of money that will ever make our client whole but she is extremely pleased that the company is making changes to prevent anyone else from being victimized the way she was,” said Mónica Ramírez, the lead SPLC attorney on the case. “Too often immigrant workers are seen as easily exploitable because they very often do not know there are laws to protect them from the kind of brutal harassment and abuse our client suffered.”

Lilia Ixtlahuaca Martinez was attacked by a plant manager and had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance.
The lawsuit, filed last year, detailed the escalation of the sexual harassment which included unwelcome sexual advances, comments, innuendo and physical contact by the manager which ended with the worker, who speaks little English, leaving the factory in an ambulance on Dec. 29, 2007, following a final brutal assault by the manager.  The lawsuit also alleges that the company failed to protect the woman after she told superiors about the harassment. 

The SPLC complaint alleges that the manager's advances, which intensified between April 2007 and the December 2007 attack, were so persistent and common that other co-workers took notice. At one point, the woman even asked a co-worker to help her hide from the manager.

In October 2007, the manager attacked the woman in his office, but she managed to get free.

According to the complaint, after the factory worker reported the manager's behavior, a human resources manager responded by suspending and disciplining her. The stress from the situation resulted in anxiety and heart palpitations that grew so severe she believed she was having a heart attack and sought medical treatment.

Two months later, the manager called the woman into an office, ostensibly for a meeting. He then trapped her in the office and attacked her again.

During the attack, she was dragged across the floor by her hair. When she tried to escape by squeezing through a cracked door, he pressed the door against her body, crushing her. The woman eventually escaped into the factory, where she collapsed, battered and with her clothes torn. She was taken to a hospital by ambulance.

"No worker should ever have to endure such an ordeal," Ramírez said. "We took this action not only to protect future workers at this factory but to send a message to other employers that sexual harassment and sexual violence will not be tolerated in the workplace."

In addition to SPLC’s suit on behalf of the woman, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) also brought a lawsuit against the company in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, Salisbury Division.  The parties’ agreement to resolve all claims is part of a consent decree filed today with the court.  While the company denied all wrongdoing, it agreed to be monitored by the EEOC for two years to ensure its compliance with the federal anti-discrimination laws.  It will also provide training to its employees and supervisors in English and Spanish on employee rights against discrimination and retaliation and a notice will be posted informing employees of the resolution of this lawsuit and their employment rights. 

Tom Fritzsche, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Geraldine Sumter, of Ferguson Stein Chambers Gresham & Sumter, P.A., served as legal counsel on this matter with Ramírez.