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Ford asks court to toss growing sexual harassment class action lawsuit

Robots perform some of the work at the Ford assembly plant in Chicago. More than 30 women at the Chicago Assembly Plant in Hegewisch and the Chicago Stamping Plant in Chicago Heights have joined a class action lawsuit that alleges discrimination and harassment took place.

Ford has moved to dismiss a class action sexual harassment lawsuit that has been broadened to include 29 more women, including employees at the Chicago Stamping Plant in Chicago Heights.

Thirty-three female employees total at local Ford plants now say they were victims of unwanted touching, unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, male colleagues showing them pictures of their genitals and attempted rape, in a federal lawsuit filed in November.

They alleged coworkers displayed pictures of oral sex and took sanitary napkins from women's bathrooms and set them out for public view, and that female autoworkers have been subjected to the same hostile work environment at Ford's Chicago area plants since the 1980s.

Ford's legal team, which includes Eugene Scalia, the son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, is asking a federal judge to dismiss the case on a wide range of legalistic grounds and submitted 472 pages of documents to support their case. Ford's attorneys for instance say the claims of five of the defendants should be dismissed because they failed to disclose their claims against Ford as potential assets in bankruptcy proceedings.

"All state-law tort claims should be dismissed because: Ford cannot be held vicariously liable for acts outside the scope of managers' and supervisors' employment; the claims are preempted by the Illinois Workers Compensation Act; and the intentional infliction of emotional distress claims are preempted by the Illinois Human Rights Act," Ford's attorneys wrote in a motion to dismiss.

Four women at the Chicago Assembly Plant filed a lawsuit in November alleging widespread abuse, including sexual propositions, demands they stop reporting lewd remarks, groping and other forms of harassment. Ford had to pay $19.5 million to settle a similar lawsuit by 14 female employees in 2000, which also resulted in a hotline and other sexual harassment safeguards at the plant on Torrance Avenue.

The Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker replaced top managers at the Chicago Assembly Plant after the second lawsuit was filed last year. A Ford spokeswoman said the company strives for welcoming, diverse workplaces.

The lawsuit that was filed in U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Illinois said the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleged women at the plants had been discriminated against because of gender and race. 

Plaintiffs alleged that between 2012 and today they were subjected to multiple forms of discrimination, including by being called sexist names, touched inappropriately, and massaged without their consent. They said they were subjected to frequent sexual innuendos, including references to female genitalia.

"Ford is a recidivist offender that has willfully ignored the issues and evidence raised in prior litigation and EEOC filings and has failed to take measures to eradicate known discrimination and harassment from the workplace," the lawsuit stated. "Ford knowingly allowed sexual harassers, molesters, and sex offenders to remain in the workplace and repeat heinous acts of sexual harassment on Ford's female employees. Ford engaged in a pattern and practice of discrimination, harassment and retaliation."

Female autoworkers alleged they were written up or threatened with being fired if they dared to complain. They also said men were routinely given personal days they hadn't earned and were paid for overtime they didn't work, while women didn't enjoy such privileges.

Ford's attorneys contend charges of retaliation should be dismissed because being reassigned does not qualify as an adverse employment action, that female autoworkers didn't prove they were actually retaliated against, and that refusing sexual advances is not legally considered opposition to discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Hunt & Associates, the Chicago law firm representing the female autoworkers, has until August to file a response to the motion to dismiss, and then the defense has until mid-September to respond to the response. A status hearing is set for November.

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.