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Iowa exec who alleged sexual harassment gets $500,000 settlement

Published Aug 08, 2010 at 09:35 - Desmoinesregister

Kelly and Kevin Housby, the owners of Housby Mack Inc., have denied mistreating Peddicord or any other female employee. The brothers say the family tractor-trailer business, which they describe as founded on integrity, had "a clean slate" for harassment complaints in the roughly four decades leading up to 2008. But it's been sued twice for sexual harassment (both settled) and once for age discrimination (ongoing) in the three years since.Lawsuit documents describe Housby Mack as a cash-strapped playground for sophomoric salesmen - a place where meetings frequently included tales of strippers and massage parlors, where an informal ban existed on hiring unattractive office help and where the owners openly worried in 2008 before promoting Peddicord to vice president because "women are more emotional than men."

The Housbys insisted during sworn testimony in April that they appreciated Peddicord for her marketing expertise, and they insisted that she was let go only because of bank pressure to stem the company's $6 million, three-year tide of red ink. But records show the company wholly surrendered in its court battle with Peddicord less than three months after that round of videotaped depositions.The brothers in June conceded judgment to Peddicord for $500,001 and essentially admitted her entitlement to the money.

Unusual for such arrangements, the settlement included no demand prohibiting Peddicord from discussing her case.Peddicord's attorneys supplied documents and copies of depositions at a reporter's request. Their client, who now handles social media for the marketing department at a local bioscience company, declined to comment further when asked to elaborate.The Housbys responded to questions about Peddicord with a letter stressing that they "strongly dispute" her allegations.

Des Moines lawyers who deal with harassment claims say some businesses seem slow to change."Our biggest observation over the years is that corporate culture matters more than anything," said Roxanne Conlin, the lawyer in a Polk County 1998 gender harassment claim that netted an $82 million verdict against United Parcel Service. "I have had dozens of complaints about one white-collar environment and one or two about an almost identical business where the emphasis from top management ... has been unequivocal."

"I don't know that these guys are like, the last dinosaurs," Frank Harty, Peddicord's lawyer, said of Housby Mack. "But the thing that's kind of interesting here is that it's the CEO and the owners of the company who were doing it. That's where you see it anymore - people who just think they can get away with it because they're above the law."Brothers take over from founding fatherHousby Mack, founded by Jack Housby in 1969, fell into the day-to-day control of his sons shortly after Jack's open-heart surgery in the late 1980s, lawsuit documents say. In addition to selling new tractor-trailers, the company now includes truck lube and repair businesses, a mixer parts business and Vocon Auctions, a nationwide sales operation for used trucks and construction equipment.

Kelly Housby serves as secretary on the Board of Trustees for the Youth Homes of Mid-America, a private social service agency formally known as the YMCA Boys Home of Iowa.Marketing job ends in firing, lawsuitPeddicord, a former producer for the Oprah Winfrey television show, moved to Iowa roughly six years ago in search of a "less hectic" life. After stints at Wells Fargo Home Mortgage and a West Des Moines advertising firm, she was hired in November 2006 to handle marketing for the Housbys. She lasted until the summer of 2008.

Court papers, depositions and documents based on Peddicord's notes describe a macho workplace that turned nastier after Peddicord told an outsider about the environment at Housby Mack.The lawsuit, filed a few months after Peddicord was fired in August 2008, accuses both Kevin and Kelly Housby of sexual harassment and Kevin Housby of assault and battery related to numerous episodes of "kissing, petting and hugging plaintiff."Documents accuse Kelly Housby of asking Peddicord to model his wife's bikini and of introducing Peddicord to acquaintances on a Las Vegas business trip as his "date for the night." Papers describe both Kelly and Kevin Housby as keenly interested in the appearance of female job candidates, and include one instance where Kelly Housby allegedly forbade Peddicord from hiring "the old lady."

According to Peddicord, it was Kevin Housby who licked her office window, left open beers on her desk and spoke fondly of what he called Peddicord's "sex-me-up jeans." Documents describe one business gathering, celebrating another woman's 10th anniversary with Housby Mack, where "Kevin Housby introduced her to the entire room as the woman with the largest breasts in the company."Kelly Housby in April said he couldn't remember ever having one of his wife's swimsuits in his office. Kevin Housby denied the window licking and downplayed most of Peddicord's other complaints as cultural misunderstandings.

"Our work environment, we're really blue collar," Kevin Housby said. "We are mechanics, and we are welders, and we are - we're an ugly industry. And initially, I had concerns about her adaptation to that blue-collar world."Kevin Housby later in the deposition voiced disappointment that Peddicord, "a so-so employee" promoted four months before her departure, hadn't traveled to enough auctions to get a proper feel for the Vocon business.Peddicord's legal documents describe a tipping point in her harassment that occurred shortly after another employee, Jamie Thompson, was let go. Hired in October 2007 to serve as Kevin Housby's personal assistant, Thompson told him two weeks later that she was pregnant. According to Thompson's now-settled lawsuit, Kevin Housby responded by saying, "I told them not to hire a fat girl."

Kevin Housby told attorneys that he simply was "disappointed that we had to invest more money and do all this. I was disappointed that the office as we know it might change, but that's the way it is."

Two specific legal definitions of sexual harassment have been established in employment law: QUID PRO QUO HARASSMENT: This occurs when a job benefit is directly tied to an employee submitting to unwelcome sexual advances. For example, a supervisor promises an employee a raise if she will go out on a date with him, or tells an employee she will be fired if she doesn't sleep with him. Quid pro quo harassment also occurs when an employee makes an evaluative decision, or provides or withholds professional opportunities, based on another employee's submission. Quid pro quo harassment is equally unlawful whether the victim resists and suffers the threatened harm or submits and thus avoids the threatened harm.HOSTILE ENVIRONMENT SEXUAL HARASSMENT: This occurs when an employee is subjected to comments of a sexual nature, offensive sexual materials, or unwelcome physical contact as a regular part of the work environment. Generally speaking, a single isolated incident will not be considered hostile environment harassment unless it is extremely outrageous and egregious conduct. The courts look to see whether the conduct is both serious and frequent. Supervisors, managers, co-workers and even customers can be responsible for creating a hostile environment.

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