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Costco’s Weak Response to Customer Harassment Leads to Confirmation of Judgment

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has confirmed a $250,000 judgment against Costco for failing to adequately protect one of its employees and dismissed its argument that the conduct did not meet the standard for sexual harassment.
Dawn Suppo was a Costco employee in Illinois. In June 2010, she first met a customer by the name of Thad Thompson. On several occasions, he approached her and asked her personal questions. She complained about two months later. Her supervisor said to let him know if she saw Mr. Thompson again. She did see him again, wearing sunglasses and hiding throughout the store watching her. She let her boss know and he told Mr. Thompson not to speak to Ms. Suppo. She was scared and complained to the police, who came to the store for a report. Her supervisor reacted by yelling at her and the police report noted that Mr. Thompson said he would avoid her. However, he did not. Over the next year or so, Mr. Thompson came to the store repeatedly. He tried to get Ms. Suppo’s phone number, he constantly tried to talk to her, he watched her, and he questioned her. She felt really uncomfortable. He also touched her several times. A manager witnessed a couple of the interactions between them and Costco denied her request to park closer because she was nervous. Ms. Suppo obtained Stalking No Contact Order that would keep him away from her for a full year. She was traumatized by the stalking and went on medical leave from her job. Ms. Suppo was ultimately fired for exceeding her medical leave.
Costco argued at trial that the encounters between Ms. Suppo and Mr. Thompson did not meet the “severe or pervasive” standard for sexual harassment under Title VII, referring to them as too “tepid” and not sexual in nature. The Seventh Circuit agreed that each of the incidents in isolation was not severe, however, conduct need not be “overtly sexual to be actionable under Title VII.” Moreover, a jury could reasonably conclude that “being hounded for over a year by a customer despite intervention by management, involvement by the police, and knowledge that he was scaring her” would be pervasively intimidating to a reasonable person. The jury could also find that Costco’s response was “unreasonably weak.”