September 29, 2022
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Federal lawsuit accuses Justin Vineyards of years of pervasive harassment of female employees

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Justin Vineyards & Winery in Paso Robles and its parent company are being sued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of female employees who say they were repeatedly sexually harassed by their male bosses.

Justin is among the tri-county region’s biggest wineries, and since 2010 it has been owned by The Wonderful Company, a Los Angeles-based firm founded by billionaires Stewart and Lynda Resnick. The Wonderful Company is one of the biggest private landowners in the San Joaquin Valley and is among the world’s leading growers of pistachios, almonds and mandarin oranges. It also owns brands including Fiji Water, Pom Wonderful pomegranate juice and Teleflora flower delivery.

On Aug. 25, the EEOC filed suit against Justin and The Wonderful Company in federal court, alleging that the winery violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects employees from discrimination based on sex, race, religion or national origin. The lawsuit was filed after an EEOC investigation determined that there was “reasonable cause to believe” the allegations are true, according to the complaint, and after the agency and The Wonderful Company were unable to reach an agreement to settle the matter out of court.

In an email to the Business Times, Rachel Ostroff, The Wonderful Company’s manager for corporate communications, said the company does not comment on matters under litigation, but “strongly denies it did anything improper and intends to defend against this filing.”

The case started when a Justin Vineyards employee opened an EEOC complaint. The resulting EEOC investigation concluded that, going back at least to 2017, numerous women who worked at Justin were “subjected to frequent, ongoing, inappropriate, unwelcome and offensive conduct of a sexual nature” by numerous male supervisors, the lawsuit states.

The supervisors’ conduct toward the women allegedly included unwanted sexual touching; indecent exposure; texting inappropriate photos; inappropriate late-night texts; and frequent sexual comments, such as calling employees “sexy” or “super hot” and discussing their outfits and undergarments. One supervisor proposed a sexual encounter to an employee, the lawsuit claims, and expressed a desire to get a divorce so that he could be with her.

The inappropriate comments and behavior often happened in front of other managers and supervisors, and Justin and The Wonderful Company “knew or should have known of the hostile environment at its worksites,” the EEOC lawsuit states. The company had verbal and written complaints from employees going back to 2017, according to the lawsuit, and did nothing to fix the problem.

In fact, the EEOC claims, the human resources department at Justin and The Wonderful Company blamed some of the accusers for their treatment and discouraged employees from reporting problems to the department.

The employees who complained also faced retaliation, according to the EEOC’s lawsuit, such as being assigned extra shifts, being investigated themselves and accused of wrongdoing, and having supervisors yell at and berate them.

The case will now proceed in federal civil court in Los Angeles. The EEOC is seeking unspecified monetary damages and court orders prohibiting Justin and The Wonderful Company from violating employment law in the future. Any money awarded in court or paid in a settlement would go to Justin employees, not the EEOC, said Rogelio Colon, an outreach and education coordinator with the agency.

“We’re not like the Department of Labor — we cannot fine or sanction an employer,” Colon said. “The employer has to agree to any settlement … and if we can’t settle, we refer charge to legal unit and they decide whether to file suit, as they have in this instance.”