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Tuesday, May 28, 2024 | Back issues
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PetSmart Can’t Muzzle Sex Harassment Claims

(CN) - A federal judge refused to dismiss allegations that a PetSmart manager threatened to kill an employee if she pursued sexual-harassment claims that she made to a not-so-confidential hotline.

Audrey Urda joined the staff at a PetSmart store in Chesterfield, Va., in 2009 after four years at a location in Vestal, N.Y.

Urda claimed that she sought the transfer because her manager regularly made sexually explicit comments to her. That New York manager is not named as a defendant in the underlying complaint.

A change of scenery apparently did not help Urda, who said that her new manager in Virginia, Matthew Girard, photographed her while she had bent over to clean the floor and committed other offending behavior. Girard is named as a defendant along with PetSmart.

One time, Girard offered to drive her home, but instead "drove her to his residence and essentially forced her inside," where he "pushed plaintiff against the wall and started kissing her neck," according to the complaint.

Urda said she was afraid to report the harassment because Girard threatened to reduce her work hours.

In June 2010, however, Urda said her boyfriend complained about Girard on PetSmart's confidential "Care Line," a forum for employees to express anonymous concerns.

Urda says she then learned that "the calls to the Care Line were recorded and 'not really anonymous'" because Girard told her that PetSmart forwarded all complaints directly to him.

When Girard received the complaint, he told Urda that "he would personally handle her, kill her, throw her under a bus, and maker her look like a psycho," if she disclosed his alleged sexual harassment, according to the complaint.

Urda says she testified and obtained a restraining order against Girard, who eventually pleaded guilty to assault and battery in September 2010. Urda also lodged a complaint with PetSmart in June, and a representative told her that she did not have to return to work until she was ready.

But PetSmart allegedly cited Urda's extended absence in deciding to fire her in July 2010. She filed suit the following year for sexual harassment, retaliation and negligent hiring.

U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson rejected PetSmart's motion to partially dismiss last week, finding that Urda's allegations about sexual harassment in New York and Virginia could show a pattern of discrimination.

"Although the time frame and continuity of plaintiff's allegations regarding the events that occurred prior to the 300 day window created by Title VII remain somewhat vague, drawing inferences favorable to the non-movant, and viewed through the plausibility standard as required by the Fourth Circuit, the court concludes that the plaintiff has described a set of facts alleging a plausible continuing violation," Huson wrote.

"Specifically, because the complaint suggests that the harassment occurring in Vestal, New York contributed to her decision to transfer stores, and then allegedly continued until the time plaintiff moved to Virginia, it remains plausible that these events depict a corporate culture tolerant of sexual harassment, and thus constitute one continuing violation," he added.

But a two-year statute of limitations bars Urda's negligent hiring claim, the decision states.

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