Fry’s Electronics pays $2 million to settle sexual discrimination lawsuit: Retailer sanctioned for withholding information related to case

By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly

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Plaintiffs America Rios and Ka Lam (center) with their legal team after the press conference announcing their victory. (Photo by Jason Cruz/NWAW)

Two former employees of Fry’s Electronics received a $2.3 million settlement as a result of a discrimination lawsuit against the store on Aug. 30, 2012.  The case arose from the continued sexual harassment of America Rios, an employee at Fry’s Renton location, and employer retaliation of Ka Lam for his attempt to investigate the harassment.

In addition to the settlement, Fry’s Electronics was sanctioned $100,000 for withholding information that was central to the case. Fry’s attorneys failed to provide information in the discovery phase of the lawsuit which would have revealed that the accused employee who harassed Rios had been investigated for a previous sexual harassment claim. The attorney for Rios and Lam, Scott Blankenship, indicated Fry’s claim that it stumbled upon a written complaint of the prior harassment, which was not originally disclosed. According to Blankenship, Fry’s did not think they were required to produce the information.

“This seven-figure settlement, among the highest EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) settlements ever on a per-claimant basis, follows court-ordered sanctions, including a penalty of $100,000 due to Fry’s abusive discovery tactics, which included destroying relevant evidence, wrongfully withholding evidence, and filing frivolous motions,” said EEOC General Counsel P. David Lopez. “The case should send a clear message that sexual harassment of vulnerable employees remains a serious problem in this country, as is employer retaliation against those who report harassment.”

Sexual harassment and retaliation for complaining about it violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The EEOC filed its lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Washington after initial attempts to resolve the dispute voluntarily failed.

Rios and Lam were Fry’s Electronics employees. Rios became the victim of sexual harassment by another employee, receiving constant text messages from an assistant manager that noted how good she looked, offered her alcohol despite being 20 years of age, invited her to his home, and asked to play with her breasts.

Lam, Rios’ direct supervisor, attempted to investigate and report the claims, but was told by Fry’s management that talking about the issue was “unproductive behavior” and was told that Fry’s had let a whole department go due to unnecessary “gossip.”

Knowing the management culture within the Renton store, Lam attempted to contact corporate headquarters in San Jose, Calif., but corporate headquarters simply turned the investigation back  over to the Renton store, instead of requesting an outside agency. The Renton store manager, who would be in charge of the investigation, was a personal friend with the individual harassing Rios.

Thus, it was unlikely that the investigation would uncover the problems Rios faced.

Lam had been an employee since 2003, and his work earned him a supervisor position in the audio-visual department at the Renton store. Lam did not originally think that his position at Fry’s would turn into a career, but he grew with the company. Prior to the issues with the company, Lam enjoyed his job.

“I loved working there. Everyone was friendly,” he said.

America Rios was 20 years old when she started working at Fry’s. She was assigned to the same department as Lam and sought Lam’s help when the harassment became too much.

“As a subordinate, it was my responsibility that I needed to report it (the harassment),” Lam said.

“She was a friend of mine.”

When Mr. Lam attempted to report the harassment, he was suspended and eventually terminated from his position. While he moved up the ranks at the electronics store based on merit, the official reason for his firing was due to his performance. Not only did Lam’s superiors refuse to hear his concerns for another employee, but his employer, who he had dutifully worked for, indicated that his sales performance was the reason he was fired.  Yet, Lam believed that the sales information Fry’s provided him was incorrect.

“This was my first job, and I just wanted the harassment to stop. It really meant a lot to have my supervisor speak out for me, and it was horrifying to see him lose his job over it,” Rios said. “I’m elated and relieved by the settlement, for Ka Lam’s sake as much as for mine.”

Walking away with one of the largest settlements ever against a company in the Pacific Northwest, Lam is relieved that the case ended the way it did.

“It validates what I did,” Lam said of his decision to file a lawsuit. “I hope that Fry’s changes its thought process on what it does and takes people more seriously,” Lam said.

As a part of the settlement, Fry’s agreed to take steps to prevent future harassment or retaliation, including ongoing training for all employees and management, as well as posting notice for all its employees about the settlement.

Rios has moved on and is working in a managerial position at a local bank. Mr. Lam is happily employed, although he is contemplating going back to school.

With corporate offices in San Jose, Calif., Fry’s Electronics sole Washington store is in Renton. Attempts to contact Fry’s Electronics and its attorneys were not returned. (end)

Jason Cruz can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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