A Case of Coors
When Coors Brewing Company worker Homer James was summoned to a meeting with his supervisors in April 1996, he thought it was because he'd been called "nigger" by a co-worker. Instead, to his surprise, the topic was sexual harassment. Coors had been sued over the issue in 1994 and -- like many major corporations -- had held sensitization sessions and issued a steady stream of admonitory memos ever since.
James was asked if he had ever "touched anyone at work." He searched his memory. Several years earlier, he had stepped on a woman's foot, he said, then placed his hand on her shoulder in apology. Oh, and there was the incident with his friend Alexa Lee Carter. He'd touched Carter's breast some time ago -- by accident, he said -- and she'd been angry. But they'd settled the issue and been able to resume their friendship.
What about Yvonne Mannon?
He was puzzled. He and Mannon had done some friendly joshing. He may have occasionally put his arm around her shoulder. But Mannon was a pretty raunchy lady. He'd once asked if he could ride one of her horses sometime, and she'd responded that he'd have to ride her first. She made jokes about his sexual equipment. "She's got one of the nastiest mouths in the whole brewery," he told the interrogator.
Over the next couple of weeks, the interviews and questions continued. "Did you ever try to grope [Yvonne]...in her genital area?" James was asked. He said no.
On May 14, James was fired. Mannon had accused him of sexually harassing her 400 or 500 times. She said she was afraid of him -- that he grabbed her almost every time he saw her, whether or not anyone else was present, called her "sugarbaby," bumped her from behind. She said he'd once almost raped her, fumbling inside her top, pulling her pants down to her steel-toed boots.
In the early months of 1996, the conditioning department, where Mannon worked, was in an uproar. A woman who had recently begun working there had set up a meeting with supervisor Tara Scherschligt to discuss various matters, sexual harassment primary among them; this woman had already told Scherschligt that Mannon was sometimes called a "bitch" and that one of her co-workers made cracks about a pervasive smell of tuna fish when Mannon was around. But there were other issues, too, involving other co-workers: theft, excessive drinking, time-card fraud. Worried about what Scherschligt would be told, workers in the department turned on one another. Mannon said later that her longtime work partner, Ralph Montanez, threatened to shoot her if she said too much, and that two other men, Rich Paris and Mike Sponsel, locked her up one afternoon and threatened to kill both her and her daughter if she told on them.
In all, Coors fired eight workers, including Paris and Sponsel. Four were fired for sexual harassment, four for other kinds of misconduct.
Mannon left work in a panic. The next day she called to say she was unable to return. Later she brought up accusations of sexual harassment. Coors granted Mannon paid sick leave and began an investigation.
On April 4 the company received a letter addressed to the security department: "Mr. investigator: Nice try asswipe. You and your cop bud are deadmen...Kids are funner to kill. Or Tara."
Panic ensued. Several employees, including Mannon, were housed in a hotel over Easter weekend. Coors installed a security system in Mannon's home and paid for several months of guard services for her. The company said it spent around $600,000 in all to protect her and investigate her allegations.
Mannon was interviewed several times. It was only on April 23, after three or four sessions and in front of Jefferson County detectives, that she mentioned Homer James. She said she'd reported his attacks on her several times and to several supervisors. According to her, Ralph Montanez (who was himself being investigated at the time for theft and time-card fraud) had witnessed them. Alexa Lee Carter, too, had been a witness. Carter had stumbled on the near-rape, Mannon said, and told James to get his hands off Mannon. Carter had also threatened to tell his wife.
But despite its cost, the investigation was hardly thorough. Co-workers who James had said would exonerate him were not questioned. Nor were most of the supervisors Mannon claimed to have alerted (later they would say they knew nothing of any sexual-assault claims). The one supervisor who was approached by investigators said Mannon had indeed come to him with a couple of concerns, but none of them were about James. Rico Gallegos, a co-worker, commented that the investigator who questioned him was "more interested in changing my attitude than telling the truth." Gallegos had tried to give this man information about Mannon -- who, Gallegos swore in an affidavit, often went out to breakfast on company time, spoke volubly and graphically about her preferences in anal and oral sex and had once grabbed a male co-worker's crotch -- but the investigator "cut the questioning short, stood up and said I was free to leave."
Montanez corroborated Mannon's charges but admitted under questioning that he himself had never seen James put his hands on her.
A woman who had been quoted by Coors investigators as saying James had once touched her breast later clarified that this was untrue. She had been speaking of someone else entirely.
Alexa Lee Carter, who according to Mannon had witnessed the attempted rape, said she had seen nothing.
In accordance with company policy, James was allowed to contest his firing in front of an appeals board. The board met in June, and supervisor Scherschligt gave members an overview of the situation. She said she had been approached in March by employees concerned about "harassment, theft, time-card frauds, threats on their lives." James asked her quietly to clarify that he was not under suspicion of theft, fraud or threatening anyone's life, but she refused to do so. She went on to say that the names of some witnesses would be withheld because they were under police protection, that one of the victims "has gone to management, HR and Women at Coors [a women's-rights organization at Coors], and the situation was never resolved," and that the "main" victim was "afraid for her life." In fact, Mannon was waiting nearby, ready to come forward if she was needed.
The case against James was presented with the help of several broken-up and unattributed quotes, some supposedly from eyewitnesses to James's assaults. The board asked about other instances of harassment and was told that the investigators "feel that at least one other woman has been subjected to this type of behavior by Homer."
The appeals board upheld James's termination.
In addition, the company pressed the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department into pursuing a criminal investigation, and James was eventually charged with six counts of third-degree sexual assault. Thirteen months later, in June 1997, the Jefferson County District Attorney's Office dismissed the charges.
Over his 24 years with Coors, James had received good evaluations and had worked his way up to a salary of $59,000 a year. At 57, he was three years away from a comfortable -- and, most of his co-workers would say, well-earned -- retirement. (Forty-two of them signed a letter of support for him.)
He filed suit against the company in May 1997, alleging, among other things, race and gender discrimination, breach of contract and defamation. The suit also named Tara Scherschligt and Yvonne Mannon.
In November of that same year, despite the investigation, paid sick leave, disability leave, workers' compensation and security system Coors had provided for her, Mannon also filed suit against the company for sexual harassment, presenting the press with a series of lurid accusations.
She told a Denver Post reporter that male co-workers had attempted to drown her in a beer tank, threatened to suffocate her in a granary bin and promised "a shotgun blast to the back of your head" if she reported their actions. For the most part, the media described the two lawsuits as proof of just how difficult things had become for employers. The Rocky Mountain News lamented that the sequence of lawsuits "illustrates the minefield employers sometimes face in their stepped-up efforts against sexual harassment. Some suggest it could become a classic example of everything that can go wrong, no matter how carefully an employer treats an employee's complaint."
Coors settled with Mannon in 1998 for over $200,000.
Last month, Homer James had his say in court. The jury listened to Ralph Montanez, Mike Sponsel, Alexa Lee Carter, Tara Scherschligt, James himself and numerous other witnesses. The woman whose heel James had remembered stepping on when he was first interviewed said he had massaged her neck and made her uncomfortable. He interpreted the incident differently. He said that after treading on her foot, he had smacked her three times on the back -- a gesture that, in the black community, removes the bad luck inherent in the misstep. Another woman claimed that when she'd offered James a birthday kiss, he had kissed her back in an inappropriate way. He denied it.
According to Kara Birkedahl, one of James's lawyers, however, there were also many people eager to speak up for him. "The outpouring of support for Homer was overwhelming. I've never had so many people want to talk to me and set the record straight."
One of the most damning pieces of evidence against Mannon was provided by Mike Sponsel, the man she had accused of locking her up and threatening both her and her daughter's lives on her last afternoon at Coors. He had called Mannon at home twice soon after that incident and taped their conversation. Instead of sounding scared, she begins by saying, "I've been waiting for you guys to page me...I've been going crazy...I didn't know what to do, Michael." She calls him "hon" several times. The two of them discuss the situation at work. They criticize Susan Rood, the co-worker who originally went to Tara Scherschligt with complaints about their department: "Well, I just feel that if I don't talk to Susan, I'm in trouble; if I do talk to Susan, I'm in trouble," says Mannon. "I do not like going to work anymore."
It's clear from the conversation that something unpleasant occurred between them and that Sponsel is trying to find out what Mannon intends to say about it. But most of the conversation focuses on their fear about what's happening at work and their mutual anger with Rood for stirring things up.
She ends the first conversation with, "Say a prayer for me, brother."
"I will, sister," he responds.
James's charges of sexual and racial discrimination against Coors were dismissed. So were the charges against Tara Scherschligt. The jury did, however, find that Coors had breached James's contract and defamed him. Jurors said the company had not acted in good faith in its statements to law-enforcement authorities. Coors was ordered to pay James a total of $730,000, $200,000 of it in punitive damages. Mannon was to pay him $650,000. Both parties will appeal.
"James didn't raise any claimed errors at the time of the appeal board, so why are they raised now?" says Coors spokeswoman Aimee St. Clair. "On defamation, we believe the evidence shows any statements were made in good faith. We don't believe there was any damage caused. We acted responsibly. We acted ethically. We have a responsibility, when someone comes forward and says they're being harassed, to investigate."
"It's essential to protect women from sexual harassment in the workplace, and men, too, for that matter," says Steve Silvern, another of James's attorneys. "What's unfortunate is when a woman misuses that protection to protect herself from discipline or to set up her own false lawsuit. And it's scary when an employer misuses a commitment against sexual misconduct to act in bad faith. The jury found beyond a reasonable doubt that Mannon and Coors should be punished for what they did to Homer."
Mannon's attorney, Timothy Schimberg, comments, "As much as we believe in the jury system, we are confused with that verdict and the message it sends to women in the workplace concerning coming forward regarding inappropriate workplace behavior. Yvonne is one courageous woman. That story of courage can't be taken away regardless of the verdict. And as both Yvonne and Coors said in closing arguments, women in the workplace should thank her for coming forward."
Homer James could use the money the jury awarded him. His current job driving a forklift began at $8 an hour, and the dust kicked up by the machinery aggravates his asthma. But money isn't foremost in his mind. "The main thing is getting my name cleared," he says, adding that Mannon's accusations and Coors's response to them have devastated his family. "The little one, she's eleven -- she was going to a Christian school," he says. "She came out one time and said, 'Daddy, the teacher said a prayer today, hoping you would get your job back.' I broke down right there."
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