A federal agency has charged Michigan’s largest egg producer with harassing a line worker and then retaliating against her for reporting the behavior.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleges that Saranac-based Herbruck Poultry Ranch Inc. violated federal law by subjecting a worker to a hostile work environment because of her disability and by retaliating against her for complaining about the discriminatory work environment, according to filings this month in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan.
The lawsuit involves the company’s treatment of Melinda Crooke, a line worker who worked for Herbruck Poultry Ranch from Oct. 14, 2014 through Aug. 10, 2015. The EEOC alleges in the lawsuit that after Crooke’s supervisor learned about her disability-related symptoms, she was mocked by her co-workers and supervisor because of those symptoms. When Crooke reported the behavior to human resources, the harassment by the supervisor worsened, according to court filings.
“An employer cannot condone a work environment where an employee with an impairment is ridiculed because of it,” EEOC Trial Attorney Dale Price said in a statement. The employer “must step in to stop such behavior,” he said.
Creating a hostile work environment because of a disability and retaliating against an employee for complaints about it violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which also prohibits employers from making working conditions so intolerable that employees believe they have to quit their jobs.
Greg Herbruck, president of Herbruck Poultry Ranch, told MiBiz the company conducted an internal investigation of the allegations and found them to be “without merit,” adding that he is “proud of a company culture of supporting team members with disabilities.”
Herbruck said the company has cooperated with the investigation and complied with all requests for information from the federal agency.
According to court documents, the EEOC on Feb. 2, 2018 issued a letter of determination “finding reasonable cause” that Herbruck Poultry Ranch violated the ADA and attempted to work with the company via “informal methods of conciliation.” Those efforts were unsuccessful, resulting in the agency filing the lawsuit, in which the EEOC calls Herbruck Poultry Ranch’s actions “intentional” and alleges they were “done with malice or with reckless indifference” to Crooke’s federally protected rights.
The EEOC is requesting a jury trial to recover monetary compensation for Crooke in the form of back pay and compensatory damages for emotional distress, as well as punitive damages, according to a statement.
“We will defend ourselves in court,” Herbruck said.
Herbruck Poultry Ranch supplies customers including McDonald’s restaurants, Costco and Meijer stores.
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