When Ka Lam was fired from Fry’s Electronics in Renton in May of 2007, it came as somewhat of a shock.
Lam, a Chinese American, stated he had been promoted several times during his tenure with the software and electronics retailer, according to a statement released by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). He had even been sent to help open two new locations in the months prior — a task normally reserved for high-performing employees.
Yet with almost no warning, and no mediation opportunities to talk with his employers about what they deemed poor work performance, Lam was let go — and he thinks he knows why.
Just three weeks before Lam was fired, acting in his capacity as a department supervisor, he had brought forth a complaint from one of his employees.
America Rios, a young woman who was under 21 years of age at the time, claimed that she was being sexually harassed by the assistant manager of the Renton location — a position that is above Lam’s in terms of authority. Rios said the assistant manager was sending her “sexually charged” messages with offers to buy alcohol and that even though she refused the advances, they continued to persist.
So Rios went to Lam for help.
However, when Lam reported the harassment to Fry’s HR department, he said he was surprised that his report of the harassment was seemingly disregarded, and he was instead met with a statement about his own performance and told that he should focus on his work. Three weeks later he was let go from a job that he had been excelling in just months before.
Lam says he was fired for reporting a claim of sexual harassment, and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) agrees.
The EEOC is an independent federal agency that enforces laws against workplace discrimination. Sexual harassment and retaliation for complaining about it — like Lam claims happened in his situation — violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Lam approached the EEOC to file a complaint against Fry’s after he was fired in 2007. According to a statement released at the end of last month, the EEOC has finally concluded its investigation and decided to file in U.S. District Court for the District of Washington on behalf of both Lam and Rios seeking “monetary damages … training on anti-discrimination laws, posting of notices at the work site and other injunctive relief.”
A CONVOLUTED STORY LINE
Lam wasn’t the only one who was laid off after the sexual harassment allegations were made. Rios was also let go in February of 2008. Fry’s cited poor work performance as a reason for letting Rios go. Rios says her work suffered because of the harassment, and that Fry’s did nothing about her complaint.
“This was my first job,” Rios said in a press release issued last month. “I was overwhelmed, uncomfortable, stressed out, and I didn’t know what to do. I tried to let it go, but I felt violated and didn’t know how to pretend that nothing happened.”
The assistant manager who was accused of the harassing has since been fired as well. Fry’s says that his termination was in no way related to the allegations. The former assistant manager refused to comment to the EEOC about the allegations or the reasons he was let go.
When contacted about the pending litigation, Fry’s released the following statement:
“Fry’s firmly denies the allegations in the EEOC complaint or that it committed any wrongdoing … Fry’s takes very seriously all claims of harassment or discrimination, will conduct a prompt and thorough investigation of such claims and will take appropriate corrective action when necessary.”
The EEOC isn’t buying it, however, and is moving forward with the litigation process.
Even if Lam was a bad worker, which didn’t appear to be the case given his track record and recognition within Fry’s, the EEOC is saying that Fry’s did not go through the proper proceedings for employee termination, which include written warnings and mediation sessions.
“I worked hard for this company, and tried to do what was right by standing up for Ms. Rios,” Lam said in an EEOC press release.
When Fry’s was asked about their firing process, however, they told the International Examiner that it is not their policy to discuss internal workings of the company or release internal documents such as mediation forms or paperwork.
“The timing is so close for them to fire someone with generally a good record,” Bill Tamayo, regional attorney for the EEOC, said over the phone Oct. 12. “I think the message they want to send is that if you help somebody who has complaints to the company, then that’s your career.”
The first court date is scheduled for June of next year, but that date will likely change due to a convening of the cases at the state and federal level.
A PRECEDENCE FOR LITIGATION
After Lam was fired, he not only filed a complaint with the EEOC, he also filed a complaint at the state level as well. Scott Blankenship, of the Blankenship Law firm in Seattle, filed with the King County Superior Court in May of this year. He is seeking monetary compensation for damages to both Lam and Rios.
At the federal level, compensatory damages are capped at $300,000, but at the state level, there is no cap. If the two cases convene, then they will be tried in the U.S. District Court, but the state’s laws will apply, meaning the $300,000 cap will essentially be removed. Blankenship couldn’t say what the final sum of the suit against Fry’s will be, but the last time he partnered with the EEOC for a sexual harassment suit -— against Lowe’s Home Improvement in 2009 — they ended up settling for $1.72 million.
“We partner with the EEOC to give the defendant the full remedy of the law,” Blankenship said via telephone Oct. 12. “I expect a jury will award the full measure of punitive damages against Fry’s.”
Fry’s has gotten bad press in the past as well for other questionable and illegal practices at both the local and corporate level.
According to a news article from The Daily Breeze, a Los Angeles-based newspaper, Fry’s vice president of merchandising and operations was charged by federal prosecutors in an illegal kick-back scheme in which he defrauded the company in order to cover gambling expenses back in 2008.
The same Fry’s store now under scrutiny in Renton was also reported on by King 5 News in 2007. According to their news report, managers offered cuts in line on Black Friday in exchange for money from waiting customers. The store later returned the money after several customer complaints and media inquiries.
As far as the current litigation goes, attorneys say it could take up to another year and a half before anything is settled.
For the EEOC and Blankenship Law firm, they say this is just another case of a corporation doing the wrong thing when it comes to mediating problems on the ground level.
May Che, the trial attorney for the case with the EEOC, summed up her thoughts in a phone interview Oct. 12:
“Here you have a supervisor who was actually trying to do the right thing and the workplace completely did the wrong thing in their response.”