A lawyer who previously won a large settlement in a sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuit against Ford Motor Co. filed a lawsuit Monday on behalf of four plaintiffs and “hundreds” of others in similar situations, alleging sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation occurring at Ford's Chicago assembly plant.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago, alleges that there is a pattern of sexual harassment and discrimination at the Chicago plant that spans more than two decades. The plaintiffs' attorneys are seeking class-action status.
Christie Van, 41, Charmella LeViege, 58, Maria Price, 29, and Helen Allen, 50, the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit, allege that they were regularly subjected to lewd and demeaning remarks directed at their gender and race. They also allege inappropriate physical contact, including groping, fondling and requests for sexual favors. The harassment also took the form of sexually explicit and derogatory graffiti and pornographic images in public areas of the plant, according to the lawsuit.
During an hour-long press conference with the plaintiffs and their lead counsel, Keith Hunt of Chicago law firm Hunt & Associates P.C., the women got emotional as they each recounted the alleged harassment they encountered while working at the plant and the “bull's eye” put on them if they reported it. “It's not like work, it's more like a meat market,” LeViege said.
“It's been a total nightmare,” said Van. “I was told to be quiet or I'd be on the outside looking in.” Van claims she called the company's harassment hotline and was given no help. Last year, after reporting claims of harassment, she said she was attacked while leaving the plant. She claims while walking to her car she was pushed to the ground and stomped on and told she was a “black snitch bitch” and that she'd better not return to her job at Ford. The lawsuit stated Van's assailant threatened that he knew where she lived and would kill her if she came back.
Van, who has worked for the company since 2006, left the Chicago plant in February 2013, after a year working there. She now works at a different Ford facility in Chicago Heights.
Allen, a pipe fitter and plumber at the plant, said that when she reported the behavior to the union they told her it was simply “shop talk.” Allen was hired by Ford in 2000 and said she has worked in three other Ford plants, all of which were outside Illinois. The Chicago assembly plant, she says, has a culture all its own. “I have to go back to work tomorrow,” Allen said, shaking her head. “It's scary. I'm very scared.”
Price said she was “groped, felt on and violated in every way,” by managers, co-workers and supervisors while on the job. “It's come from every angle,” she said.
All but one of the four named plaintiffs still works at the assembly plant. Hunt said he estimates there are close to 1,000 women working at the plant out of about 4,000 workers total. Incidents of harassment were also outlined in charges filed over the past year with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“There is a culture that is endemic at these plants that tolerates and in fact condones these instances of sexual harassment and that is what this lawsuit is attempting to address,” Hunt said.
The lawsuit also alleges instances where managers and supervisors engaged in sexual relations at the company plant during working hours.
Hunt said in addition to seeking compensatory and punitive damages, among other things, the suit seeks to appoint a federal monitor to supervise the workplace conditions for a period of at least five years, “someone who can be on site, in the workplace and not beholden to anybody at Ford,” Hunt added.
A Ford spokeswoman, Kristina Adamski, declined to discuss the specific allegations laid out in the lawsuit. “Ford is proud to be an equal-opportunity employer and takes reports of harassment or discrimination very seriously,” Adamski said in an email. “Where allegations of misconduct are raised, it is our policy to investigate them thoroughly and take all appropriate steps in response. We cannot discuss the details regarding individual employees' complaints.”
This isn't the first time Hunt has brought a sexual-harassment lawsuit against Ford. In 1995, he represented nine women at Ford's stamping plant in Chicago Heights who sued on similar grounds. That case eventually settled for more than $1 million. In 1997 he was part of two consolidated class-action lawsuits involving claims of sexual harassment filed on behalf of more than 1,000 women who worked at Ford's Chicago assembly plant and its stamping plant in Chicago Heights. That case was settled in 2000 for $9 million.
Monday's lawsuit against the automaker includes hundreds of detailed allegations on behalf of the four named plaintiffs. In a statement, Hunt, said more than 20 women have filed complaints of discrimination in federal courts, the EEOC and various internal divisions at Ford. Hunt said he expects to add additional plaintiffs to the suit as it progresses.
“We believe that many more women have been affected but are simply scared to come forward because they fear retaliation,” Hunt said in a statement.
Representatives of the plant's union, UAW Local 551, were not immediately available for comment.