A U.S. District Court judge in Portland ruled Monday that a former T-Mobile call center worker in Oakland will get a jury trial on her claim of sexual harassment against her supervisor.
The court denied the mobile phone company’s attempt to have the case dismissed before it went to trial.
The issue of sexual harassment has become a national hot button, forcing companies to reconsider their policies for employment equality. Maine had its first well-publicized sexual harassment incident in January, when the co-founder of a prominent Portland nonprofit that helped startup companies grow acknowledged that he had behaved inappropriately toward at least two female colleagues. Jess Knox of Venture Hall made the admission after he resigned. Venture Hall ceased operations and lost a large Kauffman Foundation grant in the process.
Other Maine companies are working to make workplaces safer and harassment-free by updating and emphasizing policies.
Former T-Mobile worker Angela Agganis first complained, without success, to T-Mobile’s human resources department, and then filed the suit in October 2015. She is claiming her supervisor made repeated, unwanted sexual advances, including a minute-long massage and looking her up and down daily. She was 31 at the time, her lawyer said. The call center has 800 employees.
The October 2015 complaint said that the supervisor, Gary Rochon, lost his medical license in Wisconsin for having sex with a patient. After he relocated to Maine, he took a job with Kennebec Behavioral Health where he was terminated after accusations of sexual harassment. He was then hired by T-Mobile in Oakland.
In the complaint, Agganis is asking that Rochon cease violating hers’ and others’ civil rights plus back pay for lost wages and benefits, attorney’s fees and compensatory damages determined by the jury.
U.S. District Court Judge D. Brock Hornby ruled that a jury could look at the facts in the case and determine whether the company’s sexual harassment policy is effective and whether it carried out the policy. T-Mobile is contesting that Agganis was sexually harassed, according to Hornby’s ruling.
Valerie Wicks, an attorney at Johnson, Webbert & Young in Augusta who represents Agganis, said such a case getting this far in the courts is unusual.
“There aren’t enough people who have the time, money and effort to take this as far as our client has,” she said. “This decision is important because it re-emphasizes that it’s not enough for an employer to simply have a sexual harassment policy, it must have an effective one. A policy is not effective if women are subjected to sex-based slurs, unwanted massages and leering in the workplace.”
Agganis said in a statement that no working woman should have to endure sexual harassment on the job.
“And no woman should be denied the right to speak to others about what occurred,” Agganis said. “I hope this suit will ensure that women working at T-Mobile are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve and encourage women everywhere to come forward and put an end to intolerable working conditions.”
Wicks added that once Agganis came forward to human resources, other women spoke up as well, though they did not pursue the complaints further.
“Other women in this workplace use a variety of tactics. Some went to human resources, some left and others talked among themselves,” she said.
She said another woman complained to human resources that the supervisor encouraged her to wear sheer clothing in exchange for getting certain work preferences.
Another woman reported to T-Mobile’s human resources department that the supervisor had openly used the “c word.”
T-Mobile’s human resources investigator testified that the use of such vile language didn’t necessarily violate the company’s sexual harassment policy.
The supervisor, who retired about a year after Agganis complained to human resources, was hired by T-Mobile despite his past records as a medical doctor who lost his license for having sex with two of his patients, according to a statement from Agganis’ attorneys. When Agganis reported the harassment, she claimed the company attempted to silence her by demanding she sign an agreement that she would not discuss the case with other employees.
The law firm said the National Labor Relations Board ruled that T-Mobile’s policy of imposing this gag order was illegal. Other women at the T-Mobile call center had made complaints about the same supervisor.
The federal court concluded a jury could consider this evidence when evaluating whether T-Mobile exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any sexually harassing behavior.
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