Red onions

SPOKANE — Lawyers in a sexual discrimination suit against a Quincy onion-packing operation say they’ve reached a tentative settlement, and a federal judge Thursday gave them a week to file an agreement.

Lawyers for the state of Washington and Horning Brothers LLC, a Quincy farming and packing business, told U.S. District Court Chief Judge Thomas O. Rice they’re nearing a consent degree under which Horning Brothers would manage its employees for the foreseeable future.

Allen and Gregory Horning are owners of the company, operating it alongside their father Warren Horning. The Attorney General’s office sued the business in spring 2017, saying Hermilo Cruz, the firm’s packing-house foreman since 2006, was allowed to sexually harass and discriminate against members of an all-female workforce at least as far back as 2012. 

The state identified 10 women who alleged sexual harassment by Cruz, Horning Brothers’ only Spanish-speaking supervisor, who regularly oversaw teams of employees with limited English fluency. He allegedly made unwanted sexual advances, explicit comments and lewd gestures to women workers, groped them, and demanded sex in return for keeping them on the payroll or rehiring them in subsequent seasons.  

When this behavior was reported to managers and owners beginning in 2014, the lawsuit claims, Horning Brothers “reprimanded, disciplined, discharged, expelled, failed to rehire, took adverse employment action, or otherwise discriminated” against the employees. 

After one employee filed a complaint about Cruz’s alleged behavior with the Washington State Human Rights Commission,  Horning Brothers filed a written response saying, “we immediately spoke to Hermilo ‘Milo’ Cruz. … We have every reason to believe his version of events.” 

Horning Brothers shut down their onion packing operation permanently in 2017, according to case records, although Cruz was still employed by the company as of September.

The nonprofit legal aid agency Northwest Justice Project documented employees’ complaints and referred them to the Attorney General. Horning Brothers lost a motion for dismissal last month, in which Rice ruled the company could be held liable for Cruz’s actions. 

The Court finds that even as a small business owner, Horning Brothers fails to have an effective mechanism to prevent and correct harassment,” Rice wrote in his finding Sept. 11.

The case was scheduled to go to trial Oct. 22. Parties have until Oct. 18 to file a proposed consent decree, which would govern the company’s future operations and ensure it complies with sate and federal anti-discrimination laws. A spokesman for the Attorney General’s office declined to comment Thursday.

Jefferson Robbins: 679-7013

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