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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Federal Jury Finds State of Hawaii Condoned Sexual Harassment

Yesterday, a federal jury in Honolulu found that the state of Hawaii and the Hawaii Department of Transportation’s Airports Division (HDOT) discriminated against former employee Sherry Valmoja by subjecting her to sexual harassment.  The verdict was returned in a case that the Justice Department filed last year, alleging that the defendants violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex and religion.

The evidence presented at trial showed that during her employment as an explosives detection canine handler at the Honolulu International Airport, Valmoja was subjected to sexual harassment in the form of lewd and unwelcome comments and physical intimidation by a co-worker.  The unwelcome conduct and intimidation began as early as November 2008, when both Valmoja and her co-worker were employed by a private company that contracted with the defendants.  After both Valmoja and the co-worker became employed by the State of Hawaii, the harassment and intimidation continued. 

The jury found that despite timely complaints by Valmoja about her co-worker’s conduct, the defendants failed to take prompt and effective action to remedy the harassment, which continued until March 2011 and created an abusive and hostile working environment.  The jury awarded Valmoja $38,000 to compensate her for the pain and suffering she endured because of the harassment.  Decisions about additional injunctive relief are still pending; the department has asked for a permanent injunction prohibiting the state of Hawaii from discriminating against its employees, review and revision of defendants’ sexual harassment policies and complaint procedures and training for its employees on discrimination.

“The Justice Department vigorously enforces Title VII to ensure that people can work free from sexual harassment and retaliation,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division.  “This jury’s verdict sends a loud message and a clear reminder that we will continue to effectively combat sex-based discrimination whenever it occurs in a public sector workplace.”

Valmoja originally filed her sexual harassment charge against HDOT with the Honolulu Field Office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which investigated and determined that there was reasonable cause to believe that discrimination had occurred and referred the matters to the Department of Justice.  This lawsuit was brought by the Department of Justice as a result of a project designed to ensure vigorous enforcement of Title VII against state and local governmental employers by enhancing cooperation between EEOC and the Civil Rights Division.

“Sexual harassment remains a significant problem for our nation’s workforce,” said EEOC Chair Jenny R. Yang.  “EEOC takes very seriously its obligation to obtain redress for employees who are victims of these egregious practices.  This verdict serves as a reminder to employers that they must remain vigilant in preventing and remedying harassment in their workplace.”

More information about Title VII and other federal employment laws is available at the division’s Employment Litigation Section website.  The continued enforcement of Title VII is a priority of the Civil Rights Division.  Additional information about the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice is available on the division website.

EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about EEOC is available on its website.  

Civil Rights
Press Release Number: 
Updated August 22, 2016