By Scott Sonner
RENO — Civil rights lawyers for the U.S. government have filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against a Reno car dealership they say has created a workplace hostile to women.
Champion Chevrolet intentionally engaged in unlawful employment practices for at least three years, according to the lawsuit filed Thursday by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The commission’s investigation found “very open and flagrant” sex discrimination in a workplace so hostile that the saleswoman who filed the complaint, Dena Palmer, had to quit to escape the abuse six months after she was hired, the lawsuit said. A male employee earlier filed a complaint with the commission, alleging he witnessed repeated discrimination at the dealership.
Lawyer David Houston, who represents Champion Chevrolet, said Palmer never complained to her supervisors about inappropriate conduct and quit after she got a new job at another car dealership. He called the allegations a “complete fabrication” and said the company looks forward to fighting them in court.
Palmer was the only female salesperson at Champion Chevrolet while she worked there from February to September 2016, the lawsuit said.
“The saleswoman was warned during her interview that the all-male staff did not want women around, and that certainly turned out to be true,” William Tamayo, director of the commission’s San Francisco district office, said in a statement.
Palmer was subjected to offensive comments about her sex, appearance and weight on almost a daily basis, the lawsuit said. It said she was shunned by co-workers who refused to provide her with assistance they gave colleagues, including access to office space, online training and computer login codes for work and sales bonus competitions.
The company took no action despite complaints by Palmer and Gary Quaintance, the employee who filed the earlier complaint, the EEOC said.
Her lawsuit seeks monetary damages, anti-discrimination employee training and worksite notices at the dealership about discriminatory practices.
“When an employer knows its workplace is infected with discriminatory attitudes, the employer is required by law to take steps to prevent and halt a hostile work environment,” Tamayo said. “Instead, Champion did nothing, and forced a valuable employee to quit to escape unacceptable abuse.”
Houston said in an email that Champion, operated by Hallman Chevrolet, Inc., has a “comprehensive and thorough sexual harassment policy” and will “vigorously defend the lawsuit and continue to provide a safe, pleasant and fair workplace.”
The lawsuit demonstrates the commission’s commitment to “hold open the door of opportunity for all workers regardless of sex, even in non-traditional occupations,” said commission lawyer Linda Ordonio-Dixon.
“The #MeToo movement describes more than just unwelcome sexual advances preventing people from pursuing work and careers that they excel at,” she said. “Targeting someone based on gender is every bit as illegal as sexual harassment.”
Houston said Friday that his firm has enlisted the assistance of a Washington D.C. law firm that specializes in litigation against federal agencies.
Brian Barnes of Cooper & Kirk said in a letter Friday to Commission Chairwoman Janet Dhillon that he wanted to bring her attention to the “rogue behavior” of the agency’s district office, which provided Champion with no prior notice of its intent to sue.
“In its eagerness to signal its support for the #MeToo movement, the San Francisco District Office has neglected the due process protections that are the constitutional bedrock of our system of government,” Barnes wrote.