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Company owner accused of sex harassment told HR ‘all of these girls want me,’ suit says

The Charlotte Observer logo The Charlotte Observer 4/29/2022 Hayley Fowler, The Charlotte Observer

Unwanted touching and kissing, lewd comments and sexual innuendos made by a company president were commonplace at the headquarters of an organic food business in Michigan, according to a former employee.

Now the federal government is stepping in.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency tasked with safeguarding and enforcing anti-discrimination laws in the workplace, is suing Eden Foods Inc. based on allegations that female workers were subjected to “severe or pervasive sexual harassment” at the hands of its owner and president, Michael Potter.

Potter is not named in the EEOC’s lawsuit, which was filed Monday, April 25 in the Eastern District of Michigan. The agency only has jurisdiction over the company and not the individuals associated with it.

“Even 58 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the EEOC continues to see complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace,” Miles Uhlar, trial attorney for the EEOC’s Detroit Field Office, said in a statement. “The EEOC will always stand up to those who believe their position of power carries with it the right to behave in such a way.”

Representatives from Eden Foods did not immediately respond to McClatchy News’ request for comment on April 29.

While Potter is not being sued by the EEOC, he is a named defendant in an intervenor complaint filed by the former employee who initially involved the federal government more than three years ago. Individuals who file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC have the right to intervene in litigation if the agency opts to sue on their behalf, as the EEOC did in this case.

The former employee’s attorney, Jennifer B. Salvatore of Salvatore Prescott PLLC, said her client wanted to come forward to spare other women the same fate by putting an end to the alleged harassment.

“It’s difficult when the owner is the one engaging in this type of conduct,” Salvatore told McClatchy News.

The former employee, who McClatchy News is not naming, was hired in the marketing department of Eden Foods in 2017, court documents state.

Allegations of workplace sexual harassment

Eden Foods was started in the 1960s as a co-op for natural foods and later became a major player in the organic food industry with warehouses in Michigan and California, according to its website. The company is headquartered in Clinton, Michigan, about 53 miles west of Detroit.

Potter has been with Eden Foods for more than 48 years, according to video footage recorded of him at a conference in 2016.

Federal officials said the alleged workplace misconduct dates to at least January 2017.

Since that time, the EEOC said, Potter “routinely touched and invaded the personal space of female employees” — including rubbing their backs, kissing their heads and “repeatedly brushing up against them, for up to hours at a time,” the lawsuit states.

The former employee, who became manager of the marketing department, also said she witnessed Potter brush his hand over an opening in the back of a female employee’s blouse, give back rubs, smack a worker’s butt and kiss someone on the forehead while wishing her a happy birthday.

“At a meeting in or around April of 2019, Mr. Potter seated himself at the table beside a young, female employee instead of at the head of the table in the seat reserved for him,” the former employee’s lawyer said in her complaint. “He proceeded to touch this employee’s calf with his foot throughout the meeting, making her visibly uncomfortable.”

Potter also referred to a job candidate as a “tall drink of water” with “those legs,” the lawsuit states.

The EEOC said Potter frequently referred to women in the office using derogatory or pet names and tried to get sexual innuendos such as “get it now” and “how much do you want it” put into marketing materials.

‘All of these girls want me’

Potter’s treatment of the marketing manager was allegedly no different. According to her complaint, he regularly touched her, intruded on her personal space and made excuses to be close to her at work.

The former employee tried to report his behavior to Human Resources, the EEOC said, but Potter is accused of laughing when he was confronted with the allegations.

“All of these girls want me,” he reportedly said, according to the EEOC.

The federal agency said Potter “inappropriately touched every female who held the social media coordinator position since 2017.”

The work environment was reportedly so toxic, in fact, that officials said female employees used a code word to warn others whenever Potter was approaching.

“They would say the code word and everyone would be on alert to try and move or hide to not be stuck alone with or next to Potter,” the EEOC said.

By the fall of 2018, a female staffer filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC outlining Potter’s alleged behavior. The marketing manager agreed to cooperate with the investigation, court documents state, and she was later fired.

Her lawyer said it was in retaliation for speaking out about Potter and agreeing to participate in the EEOC investigation.

She later filed her own charge of discrimination with the EEOC, which resulted in the present lawsuit.

The former employee’s complaint makes claims for a hostile work environment and retaliation. She is seeking compensatory and punitive damages as well as attorneys’ fees. The EEOC, meanwhile, accused Eden Foods of violating the Civil Rights Act by “creating and maintaining a sexually hostile work environment.”

The federal agency has asked for a permanent injunction barring Eden Foods from future sex-based discrimination and compensation for the women who were allegedly affected, including back pay and damages.

Other legal cases

Potter previously made headlines in 2013 when he and his company sued President Barack Obama’s administration over a provision in the Affordable Care Act that required employers to cover contraception under their health care plans, The Ann Arbor News reported.

Eden Foods cited Potter’s religious beliefs as a devout Roman Catholic in its objection to the mandate.

“Plaintiffs employ 128 full-time employees, are subject to monetary penalties under the Affordable Care Act, and are forced under the Mandate by penalty of heavy fines to conduct business in a manner that violates their religious faith by providing and funding contraceptives and abortifacients, which violates deeply held religious beliefs,” the lawsuit filed in Michigan federal court stated.

Potter later told a reporter at the media outlet Salon that he had “more interest in good quality long underwear than I have in birth control pills.”

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the contraceptive mandate, and Potter’s case was later dismissed.

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