Back in September we described a case of same sex harassment and retaliation at a small mom & pop type business. It may be no surprise that a company with only a few employees and no compliance department would fail to prevent violations. But as a recent lawsuit by the Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the victimized former employee shows, risk reduction measures by large corporations are also only as good as the persons implementing them. According to the lawsuit’s allegations, fast food chain Chipotle’s efforts to prevent harassment failed spectacularly. See generally EEOC v. Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc., Case No. 8:20-cv-02128 (M.D. Fla., Sept. 10, 2020).

The female employee, Ms. Cassandra Jerome, was working at Chipotle in the Tampa, Florida area, in the company’s management training program that had employees cycle through the various store positions, with the goal of becoming an apprentice manager and, presumably, eventually a store manager. According to allegations, between March 2018 and May 2018, one of the kitchen employees, Mr. Lazaro Avila, sexually harassed and assaulted Ms. Jerome. Specifically, the EEOC and Ms. Jerome allege Mr. Avila:

  • Made repeated and frequent sexually charged remarks over a three-month period (approx. 2-4 times a week) including, but not limited to saying, “[y]our breasts are so big,” and “I want to sink into your ass;”
  • Frequently touched Ms. Jerome’s buttocks and rubbed up against it in passing; and
  • Twice sexually assaulted her, first by pushing a food tray up between her legs, and, later that same day, grabbing her hair when she was kneeling by a garbage can and proceeding to simulate oral sex.

According to the allegations, Ms. Jerome reported the inappropriate touching and comments to her supervisor and her store’s manager on at least four occasions. She also immediately reported the sexual assaults to her supervisor, and both the supervisor and Ms. Jerome jointly informed the store manager on the day of the assaults. The store manager advised that appropriate action would be taken. Five days later, when no apparent action had been taken, Ms. Jerome informed her supervisor and the store manager that she would inform Chipotle corporate management of her complaint, but she was assured her claims would be escalated to human resources. Instead, Ms. Jerome was terminated three days later, based on a failed food safety audit that had been performed that day.

The EEOC is alleging a sexually hostile work environment and unlawful retaliation for Ms. Jerome having reported the harassment and assault, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. For a refresher on Title VII harassment and retaliation, take look back at our prior post. Ms. Jerome, who intervened in the EEOC lawsuit and is now also suing Chipotle, alleges a variety of claims in addition to those brought under Title VII, including Florida Civil Rights Act claims and common law claims of negligent infliction of emotional distress, negligent retention, negligent supervision, negligent training, and negligent hiring. Copies of the EEOC and Ms. Jerome’s complaints can be found here and here.

So, what’s the point? If true, the allegations against Chipotle are a good reminder that employees of large, well-heeled companies can be subject to discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, just like everyone else. Large employers usually put systems in place to prevent abuses and to better defend against lawsuits like this one. But even if these systems are operational, they can—and do—break down, especially when lower-level management fails to intervene or take complaints seriously at an early stage. The lesson: employees should not be discouraged to come forward, regardless of the size of the employer.