Ventura, CA — Imagine yourself a faithful and diligent worker at a billion dollar corporation for over 25 years, making a decent wage, managing a pretty good reputation among peers and loyal customers. Now imagine your supervisor shattering your world with threats and sexual harassment.
For James Stevens of Simi Valley, this fantasy was a reality. In 2002, Stevens was working as an inventory control clerk at a Vons grocery store in Ventura County when his years of stellar service were interrupted by a new employee.
In an interview with Our Weekly, Stevens recounted his ordeal. “Laura Marko originally transferred in, working the service deli as a manager,” Stevens recalls, “And word got around that I was a Christian man, married, didn’t play around, and I guess that must have intrigued her.”
Stevens remembers Marko started making sexual innuendoes and inappropriate comments to him when he would stop by her department for lunch. Eventually her remarks graduated to more vivid sexual illustrations.
“She was making references like, ‘Is it true what they say about Black males’ genitalia’ and ‘is it true that you guys don’t go down on your wife?’”
Though some instances would compel Stevens to respond, he feared if he gave any attention to the issue, his job would be threatened, his reputation would be ruined, or his family would be lost to him.
“The dilemma is if you don’t respond, the women would sometimes wonder and think about flipping it on you and accusing you of it,” Stevens explains, “If you do respond on Monday, well Wednesday she may not be in the mood and you respond then, you may be harassing her. Well I just figure it’s best not to say anything at all.”
After two years of enduring sexual harassment from Marko, Stevens finally recorded a list of co-workers who confessed to have encountered her behavior or have witnessed her behavior. Stevens took his complaint to the higher-ups at the store.
He says it took him so long to complain because he wanted to compile a good defense for his arguments and because he fearfully watched his peers, who reported similar claims, be transferred or terminated.
Vons spokesperson, Daymond Rice, says, “Safeway and Vons have policies preventing sexual and all forms of illegal harassment in the workplace. We take our obligations to provide an environment free of harassment very seriously. Complaints are promptly investigated, and appropriate remedial action is taken.”
In processing his complaints, Stevens alleges that he was called into the office of the head of Human Resources who presented him with the result of the investigation.
“The first words out of her mouth were, ‘If it was up to me, I would fire you today,’” Stevens taped the conversation. “I said, ‘Well aren’t you interested in getting the truth?’ She said, ‘No, we’re not interested in the truth. Our concern is that the store is running properly.’”
Stevens was transferred to another location where he relates that rumors began that he imposed the sexual comments on Marko.
He filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), but was told that there was not enough substantial evidence to take any action. A year later, 2004, Stevens was fired.
“The reason they gave me for my termination is that I donated $76 of unsalable product that was left on the trash to a local church,” Stevens says the accusation is false.
Plagued with depression, Stevens stated that he sought medical treatment and even took out a $100,000 insurance policy as he plotted his own death. In 2005, fed up with the emotional tension and constant drama, his wife of 29 years left in the middle of the night, taking their three children with her.
Regaining his self-respect, Stevens filed for a lawsuit against Vons.
“It took over 35 attorneys before I found one that would take me seriously,” Stevens explains.
“They would say I’m a Black man in Simi Valley, filing a complaint against a White female.”
By 2006, an all White jury awarded Stevens $18 million in damages in a civil suit against Vons Corporation. His victory was short lived though, when the judge, Justice Leeman, overturned the verdict and reduced the award to $2.4 million.
Though the award was reduced to less than a quarter of the original amount, Vons appealed on the basis that the defense felt it did not get a fair trial.
Stevens alleges Judge Leeman threatened if he didn’t take the lesser money, and appeal for a new trial, Stevens wouldn’t win in his court.
Outraged at the ruling and remembering the trial, Stevens stated, “The jury awarded that amount of money to me. They did that to send a message. The message they sent didn’t land because the justice system threw out their verdict!”
In the meanwhile, according to Stevens, no disciplinary actions were taken against Marko. She resigned from her position before the trial.
Attempts to reach Marko for a comment were unsuccessful.
Rice states, ” Despite the jury’s verdict, Vons believes it appropriately handled the issues concerning Mr. Stevens’ claims of sexual harassment and the subsequent termination of his employment for violation of company policy.”
He attempted to appeal his case with the State Appellate Court, but a rehearing was rejected. Stevens’ legal team is currently awaiting the approval to hear his case in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Sexual Harassment and Men
In 2008, men filed 16% of nearly 14,000 sexual harassment complaints reported to the EEOC.
More cases are being reported of men being harassed particularly by female supervisors.
Jim Hilton of Compliance Training Group says the harassers are, “the same type of individuals who don’t know the word ‘no’ or ‘stop.’”
Specializing in sexual harassment training, Hilton says this kind of abuse is always unacceptable.
“I’m dumbfounded that people don’t get it. It irritates me that they try to sweep it under the rug. If (companies) would just begin training, they wouldn’t have to go through these lawsuits,” Hilton expresses.
Men are less likely to report sexual harassment for fear their masculinity may be questioned.
Hilton says he thinks men are less likely to be harassed, however.
He also says, “Employees don’t know what to do and they put up with it because they are afraid to lose their jobs. It becomes too great.”
Stevens founded a non-profit organization called Justice Inc. as a resource center for families and youth facing justice issues. The organization will conduct seminars on law education, legal defense education, and financial education.
“I don’t want to see this happen to anybody else,” he says. “I want to encourage men because it’s hard to come forward. We have a support group through Justice Inc. The more people talk about it, we will get this to stop.”
To get more information about Justice Inc., log onto getjusticeforall.org.