The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has filed suit against Third Bench Holdings, a millwork and cabinet installations company, and its subsidiary, Las Cruces Cabinets LLC d/b/a Sher-Wood Cabinetry, located in Las Cruces, N.M., alleging the company violated federal law by retaliating against three employees for reporting harassment and discriminatory treatment.

The EEOC’s lawsuit, the complaint for which was filed on August 9, 2023, in the U.S. District Court of New Mexico, seeks “to correct unlawful employment practices on the basis retaliation and to provide appropriate relief” to three employees “who were adversely affected by such practices … when defendants retaliated against them because they engaged in protected activities in violation of Title VII.”

Two of the three employees, a married couple, were employed by Las Cruces Cabinets LLC d/b/a Sher-Wood Cabinetry at the Las Cruces facilities prior to Third Bench Holding’s acquisition of the company in October 2020. The third employee was hired as Third Bench Holdings LLC’s human resources (HR) manager in May of 2021. According to the lawsuit, one of the married couple started noticing around August 2021 that “Hispanic managers, including herself, were being treated differently than other non-Hispanic managers,” to the point that she and her husband “were not permitted to engage in certain duties and did not receive timely reimbursements as compared to non-Hispanic managers.” The same employee also felt one of the company’s controllers was providing “disproportionate oversight” for her work as compared to other managers.

When the employee spoke up about her experiences at a managerial meeting that same month, the complaint says, she was excluded from future meetings; and when the employee took the matter to the company’s chief operating officer (COO), she was told “not to go to HR,” court documents allege, and that “[he and [the employee]] could fix it between themselves,” though, the complaint continues, the employee “was given no reason to believe that [the COO] exercised his responsibility to take further preventative, corrective or remedial action at that time.”

According to court documents, in September of 2021, the employee took the matter to HR, at which time the third employee in the suit—the human resources manager—became involved, initially instructing that all communication from the company controller destined for the employee alleging discrimination be sent via the company CEO. That same month, the employee complained a third time to HR, “stating that [the controller] was condescending and withholding work-related assistance from” herself and her husband, and that she “was scared to report because [the controller] would punish her for complaining by ‘messing with [the couple’s] finances.’”

Ten days later, the HR manager addressed concerns with both the company CEO and chief operating officer, indicating that she felt the company controller “was harassing her for expressing concern” for the employee’s complaints, though the lawsuit alleges that neither executive took any corrective or remedial action at that time.

The following month, the employee reported to human resources that the “situation with defendants was ‘getting worse’ and that she felt she was being retaliated against” by the COO and the controller. Acting on that fourth complaint, the HR manager “opened an internal HR investigation,” and interviewed several other managers in the company, including the employee’s husband, court documents state. Her notes from the interviews were forwarded to the company CEO as well as the owner, along with a request to speak with them both about the discrimination concerns the employee had lodged. The lawsuit indicates that the HR manager had not completed the investigation yet, but the employee who had lodged the complaint was immediately demoted from a general manager position to that of salesperson and her husband fired from the company.

According to the EEOC filing, the human resources manager opined that the controller continued to harass her and that the HR manager informed the CEO and company owner of her intent “to file a charge of discrimination with EEOC because of” the harassment.

At this point, the lawsuit says the company hired Cristin Heyns-Bousliman, a third-party human resources contractor, to investigate the HR manager’s concerns, and that the third-party group “advised [her] that she did not have standing to make a claim under Title VII” before attempting “to convince her not to file a charge.”

The human resources manager was fired three days later.

The three employees filed complaints of discrimination with the EEOC, by Las Cruces Cabinets LLC d/b/a Sher-Wood Cabinetry, in November 2021, and the EEOC is arguing that the defendants’ termination of two employees and demotion of one “were in retaliation for engaging in statutorily protected activities in violation of Title VII.”

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from retaliating against employees for opposing unlawful behavior or participating in investigations or proceedings.

According to an EEOC press release, its suit came after the government organization first attempted to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process. The EEOC is asking for a jury trial and seeks back pay damages, reinstatement, or front pay in lieu thereof, compensatory and punitive damages, and injunctive remedies, including an order prohibiting the employer from engaging in discriminatory or retaliatory treatment in the future.

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