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Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Matanoros

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle

September 8, 2017

EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, Plaintiff,
v.
SERAPIA MATANOROS, et al., Plaintiff-Intervenors,
v.
TRANS OCEAN SEAFOODS, INC., Defendant.

          ORDER

          Honorable Richard A. Jones, United States District Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiffs-Intervenors' Motion for New Trial. Dkt. #234. Although Plaintiffs-Intervenors Elena Perea Olea and Celia Sanchez Perea have requested oral argument, the Court finds that oral argument is unnecessary. For the reasons stated below, the Court GRANTS Plaintiffs-Intervenors' Motion.

         II. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiffs-Intervenors, Serapia Matamoros Perea (“Matamoros”), Elena Perea Olea (“Perea”), and Celia Sanchez Perea (“Sanchez”) (collectively, “Plaintiffs-Intervenors”), brought claims of sexual harassment against Defendant Trans Ocean Seafoods, Inc. (“Trans Ocean”), under Section 703(a) of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a), and the Washington Law Against Discrimination (“WLAD”). Plaintiffs-Intervenors alleged that they were sexually harassed by their immediate supervisor, Bartolo Pilar (“Pilar”), and other male employees while working as clam harvesters at Trans Ocean. At the conclusion of trial the jury did not find, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Trans Ocean knew or should have known about Pilar's or other employees' harassment of Perea and Sanchez. Dkt. #176. On July 12, 2017, Plaintiffs-Intervenors Perea and Sanchez filed a motion for a new trial. Dkt. #234.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a) provides that a “court may, on motion, grant a new trial on all or some of the issues . . . after a jury trial, for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a).

         Because “Rule 59 does not specify the grounds on which a motion for a new trial may be granted, ” courts are “bound by those grounds that have been historically recognized.” Zhang v. Am. Gem Seafoods, Inc., 339 F.3d 1020, 1035 (9th Cir. 2003). Included among these historically recognized grounds are claims “that the verdict is against the weight of the evidence, that the damages are excessive, or that, for other reasons, the trial was not fair to the party moving.” Molski v. M.J. Cable, Inc., 481 F.3d 724, 729 (9th Cir. 2007) (quoting Montgomery Ward & Co v. Duncan, 311 U.S. 243, 251 (1940)). Ordinarily, a “trial court may grant a new trial only if the verdict is contrary to the clear weight of the evidence, is based upon false or perjurious evidence, or to prevent a miscarriage of justice.” Id. (quoting Passantino v. Johnson & Johnson Consumer Prods., 212 F.3d 493, 510 n.15 (9th Cir. 2000)).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Under Title VII and WLAD, an employer is liable for the harassment of a co-worker if the employer knew or should have known of the harassment but did not take adequate steps to address it. Swinton v. Potomac Corp., 270 F.3d 794, 803 (9th Cir. 2001). Plaintiffs-Intervenors argue that the jury's finding that Trans Ocean did not know and should not have known of the harassment of Perea and Sanchez is contrary to the weight of the evidence presented at trial.

         Plaintiffs-Intervenors argue that Trans Ocean's response to a request for admission, business records, and testimony at trial establish that Trans Ocean knew that Perea and Sanchez were being harassed. Number 12 of Plaintiffs-Intervenors' Requests for Admission, read into the record at trial, states: “Admit that there was one informal complaint against Bartolo Pilar prior to April 2013 for using sexual language in the workplace. Answer: Admit.” Dkt. #235 Ex. 4. Plaintiffs-Intervenors also submitted as exhibits notes titled, “Sexual Harassment Claim Investigation”, and discipline documentation forms for Matamoros and Pilar. All three documents reference a prior complaint against Pilar and Matamoros' claim that Pilar was also sexually harassing other women. Dkt. 235 Ex. J, I and N.

         Plaintiffs-Intervenors' argument is based on the proposition that knowledge of a hostile work environment as to one victim can be imputed to all alleged victims. However, this theory of liability is not supported by case law. Plaintiffs-Intervenors cite to two cases to support its theory; both of which are inapposite and unpersuasive. In E.E.O.C. v. Fred Meyer Stores, Inc., the district court found that plaintiff need not allege that each class member involved in a class action complained about harassment in order to meet the pleading requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), not that knowledge of the harassment of one victim is sufficient to prove that there was knowledge of the harassment of all potential victims. E.E.O.C. v. Fred Meyer Stores, Inc., 954 F.Supp.2d 1104, 1112 (D. Or. 2013), on reconsideration in part (Sept. 19, 2013).

         Plaintiffs-Intervenors also cite to Davis v. U.S. Postal Serv., 142 F.3d 1334 (10th Cir. 1998). In Davis v. U.S. Postal Service, the plaintiff appealed the district court's decision granting defendants' motion for judgment as a matter of law as to all of her claims. On appeal, the Tenth Circuit found that, when considered in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, a rational jury could find that the defendant negligently handled the plaintiff's sexual harassment complaint because there was evidence that the defendant employer was aware of previous complaints against the employee and thus should have been on notice of his harassing behavior. While the previous complaints were evidence that supported plaintiff's claim that defendant was negligent, the appellate court did not find that knowledge of harassment of others automatically equated to knowledge of harassment of the plaintiff, only that it was possible that a jury could find that it constituted notice.

         Without this theory of liability, Trans Ocean's response to a request for admission acknowledging a prior complaint against Pilar, its business records noting the same, and Matamoros' complaint that Pilar was also harassing other women at work, are not sufficient to establish that Trans Ocean had actual knowledge that Perea and Sanchez were being harassed without other corroborating evidence. Plaintiffs-Intervenors argue that Matamoros, Perea, Sanchez, and Emily John-Martin all provided testimony corroborating Plaintiffs-Intervenors' claim that Perea and Sanchez reported their sexual harassment to Trans Ocean's Operations Manager, Sebastian Santelices. Matamoros, Perea, and Sanchez testified that they reported that Pilar was sexually harassing them on two occasions prior to filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). Dkt. #235 Ex. A-D. The first was at an off-site meeting with Santelices, and the second was at an employee meeting at Trans Ocean's processing plant. Id. At the first meeting off-site, Perea and Matamoros told Santelices that Pilar was making sexual comments about them. Santelices then told the women that there would be another meeting and that he would talk to Pilar. Dkt. #235 Ex. A-C. Perea and Sanchez made a second complaint about Pilar's sexual comments shortly after the first, at an employee meeting. Santelices, Matamoros, Perea, Sanchez, and John-Martin were all present. Id. Sanchez testified that Perea again complained to Santelices that Pilar was sexually harassing them[1]. Dkt. #235 Ex. ...


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