Kearny Auto Spa Lesbian Employee Fired after She Reported Sexual Harassment

TRENTON – Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman and the Division on Civil Rights announced today that the State has filed a lawsuit in Superior Court alleging that a Hudson County auto detailing business tolerated the workplace sexual harassment of an openly lesbian employee, then fired the employee after she reported the harassment.

Filed in the Law Division of Superior Court in Essex County, the State’s three-count complaint alleges that Kearny Auto Spa subjected the woman to a hostile work environment in the form of “severe and pervasive harassment” while also failing to maintain an anti-harassment policy in the workplace, or take action in response to her repeated internal complaints. Among other allegations, the complaint charges that the woman’s supervisors at Kearny Auto Spa made crude comments about her sexual orientation on a regular basis, and that her fellow line employees repeatedly propositioned her for sex.

In addition, the complaint alleges that Kearny Auto Spa subjected the employee to differential treatment on the basis of her gender. Specifically, managers allegedly gave her less favorable work assignments and work hours than her male co-workers. The lawsuit also alleges that the woman was unlawfully terminated on June 19, 2013 — approximately one month after she reported the alleged pattern of harassment she’d experienced to the Division on Civil Rights.

“The type of pervasive, sexually harassing workplace conduct alleged in the State’s complaint is unacceptable and, more directly on point, unlawful,” said Acting Attorney General Hoffman.

“In any employment setting, workers have a right to do their jobs without being subjected to inappropriate comments, solicitations for sex, and other harassment, Hoffman said. “Furthermore, employers have a responsibility to protect their employees from such harassment. Allegedly firing a worker because she reported the alleged conduct is an obvious abdication of that responsibility.”

“Public and private entities need to train their supervisors to address internal discrimination complaints,” said Division Director Craig Sashihara. “Employers should have a well-publicized workplace policy, effective complaint structure, training, enforcement and monitoring mechanisms. State and federal law make clear that employers who do not have a system to accept and investigate harassment complaints, proceed at their own risk.”

According to the State’s complaint, the alleged victim began working at Kearny Auto Spa as a detailer — waxing and hand-drying vehicles and cleaning their interiors — on July 17, 2012. The woman, whose name is being withheld because of the nature of the conduct alleged, was the only female auto detailer employed at Kearny Auto Spa.

The lawsuit alleges that, on numerous occasions throughout her employment, the woman was subject to repeated, unwelcome sexual comments from supervisors and co-workers alike. Among other alleged comments, a manager at Kearny Auto Spa is accused of repeatedly asking her how she and her partner engaged in sex, while her immediate supervisor allegedly told her on several occasions that he would “take care of” her female partner.

Both men also are accused of regularly asking the woman whether she planned to go home with female friends who brought their cars in for service, and her immediate supervisor is accused of having once directed her to turn around so he could view her buttocks.

In addition, two of the victim’s fellow auto detailers are alleged to have propositioned her for sex on multiple occasions, and one of those fellow employees is accused of leaving written notes in the workplace expressing his desire for her.

The State’s complaint also accuses Kearny Auto Spa of gender-based discrimination in the workplace. Specifically, the woman’s immediate supervisor allegedly told her that men do a better job, and on one occasion allegedly forced her to continue doing work that placed pressure on a painful knee because “since you act like man, I’m going to treat you like a man.”

The complaint alleges that the woman had her hours cut between March and June 2013, was regularly turned away when she reported for work or had her shift truncated, and was ultimately removed from detailing cars and assigned to wiping down windows. None of her male co-workers experienced the same treatment, the complaint alleges.

On June 19, 2013, the woman was terminated – ostensibly because she left work before her shift was over, and because she had received prior warnings about tardiness and leaving early. The ex-employee denies those allegations, however, and Kearny Auto Spa has no time records or other documentation to support its assertion, according to the State’s complaint.

The State’s complaint also asserts that Kearny Auto Spa changed its rationale for firing the woman in the midst of the Division’s investigation into her allegations – from alleged tardiness and leaving early to a lack of skill at the job. The complaint notes that Kearny Auto Spa failed to provide records or other evidence to support its claim that she was a substandard employee.

“Because Kearny Auto Spa shifted its proffered reasons for termination and did not provide evidence supporting those reasons, the Division credited (her) allegation that she was fired in retaliation for her complaints of discrimination,” the Division’s lawsuit states.

The State’s discrimination lawsuit against Kearny Auto Spa seeks lost wages, damages for mental and emotional distress and any other costs associated with the alleged harassment of the woman, as well as her retaliatory firing.

The complaint also seeks punitive damages for the employer’s “willful” violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, imposition of civil penalties in accordance with the LAD statute, and other relief.

Deputy Attorney General Megan J. Harris, assigned to the Division of Law’s Civil Rights Section, handled the Kearny Auto Spa complaint on behalf of the State.