A federal judge has ordered an area company to pay damages to and drop a lawsuit against a former employee who complained to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission of pay discrimination in 2015.
Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Sarah Hays ordered Hobson Bearing International Inc., based in Diamond, to pay Tera Lopez $37,500 in damages. The company is also barred from bringing any other lawsuit or counterclaim against Lopez related to her complaint, according to the judge’s order.
Lopez, a former project manager at Hobson Bearing, went to the EEOC last year alleging pay discrimination based on gender. After the EEOC had conducted its investigation into her complaint, Hobson Bearing sued Lopez in Jasper County Circuit Court, alleging “malicious prosecution.”
Hays, citing previous rulings from state and federal courts in Missouri, as well as one in Virginia, said in her order that allowing companies to sue employees who file complaints with the EEOC endangers the individual’s “absolute privilege” to seek assistance in case of discrimination. The law even applies, Hays said, when employees’ complaints turn out to be unsubstantiated or false.
“The judge’s order is significant because the veracity of the employee’s complaint to the EEOC is not relevant to whether or not they’re protected in coming to the EEOC,” said Grant Doty, an EEOC trial attorney with the St. Louis District office. “What matters is people need to be assured, when they come to the EEOC, they’re not going to be sued.”
Hobson Bearing’s lawsuit against Lopez claimed she complained to the EEOC to harass the company and receive financial gain, according to Hays’ order. The suit sought economic and punitive damages from Lopez.
Doty said allowing the suit against Lopez to continue could lead to employees suffering discrimination by not seeking assistance out of fear of retaliation.
“We’re here for people to come to us because they think they’re being discriminated against,” he said. “And we can’t have employers arbitrarily suing people because they exercise a firm right to go to the EEOC.”
Globe efforts to reach Lopez for comment were unsuccessful. A phone message left for Hobson Bearing owner Gene Hobson on Tuesday was not returned.