When someone claims sexual harassment at work, what's relevant to proving their case? That question resonated in a U.S. District courtroom Wednesday as a lawyer for Schwan's, the frozen food company based in Marshall, Minn., fought to rein in an investigation launched by a former employee's harassment complaint.
Should the company be forced to list the name and gender of all 500 to 600 of its depot managers, the position she was training for? Or provide a list of people who successfully completed the training that she dropped out of after making her allegations? Or explain how people are chosen for that program?
The hearing before Magistrate Judge Janie S. Mayeron was the latest turn in a legal fight that's spanned more than two years since Kim Milliren made her initial complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Mayeron heard arguments from the EEOC that she should order Schwan's to answer those questions; she took the matter under advisement at the end of the hearing.
Milliren, who was not present Wednesday, said in 2007 that shortly after she joined the company she was met with sexually derogatory comments, sexually explicit e-mails sent by a Schwan's vice president, and criticism and a demotion when she complained. An EEOC investigation of the charge has stalled as the company fights a subpoena seeking company records.
Attorney James Sherman, representing Schwan's, said that the company provided the information it thought the EEOC would need to determine the case, but that other EEOC requests were not relevant. He added that Schwan's wouldn't hire a woman into a program and then use her gender to exclude her from it. He also said Schwan's moved swiftly to correct the problems Milliren identified.
The EEOC's authority allows for a broad examination of a company's practices, argued EEOC lawyer Nicholas Pladson. Milliren might not have been aware of other cases of discrimination within the company, or of a pattern of behavior, he said.
Sherman picked apart the differences between Milliren's original charge of discrimination, filed shortly after she left the company in 2007, and an amended charge filed Feb. 4 this year in which Milliren said the company discriminates against women, a charge that elevates her complaint to a class action.
Milliren has no basis to make her complaint a class action, the company argued. "She cannot allege something she did not experience," Sherman said.
Federal statutes allow persons who feel they have been discriminated against 300 days to file their complaints. Pladson argued that a person can later amend his or her original complaint.
Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329