CHICAGO (CN) – Home Depot could be liable for a manager’s murder, then rape, of a pregnant employee after the retailer failed to take action on multiple sexual harassment complaints against him, the Seventh Circuit ruled.
“Every life lost to brutality is unique, each family’s hell a private one,” Judge David Hamilton said, writing for the appeals court’s three-judge panel. “We do not diminish that truth when we repeat that Alisha’s story is an old story that has been told too many times. Its ending is both shocking and predictable. Alisha’s family is entitled to try to prove its truth.”
Brian Cooper was Alisha Bromfield’s supervisor at Home Depot when he told her she had to attend his sister’s wedding with him or he would fire her, according to court records.
After the wedding, he took her to a hotel room and asked her to be in a relationship with him.
When she refused, Cooper strangled Bromfield to death and then raped her corpse. Bromfield was seven months pregnant at the time, and her unborn daughter did not survive.
Cooper was sentenced in 2014 to two life terms without the possibility of parole for first-degree intentional homicide and third-degree sexual assault.
Bromfield’s mother sued Home Depot for wrongful death, claiming that the retailer had a duty to protect her daughter against Cooper’s harassment.
Other supervisors at Home Depot were well aware of Cooper’s behavior towards his female employees, as Bromfield was not the only woman he harassed on the job, according to the complaint.
One high-school-aged employee reportedly quit her job because she felt so uncomfortable working for Cooper.
In front of customers, Cooper would “throw and slam items in the garden center and… parking lot while screaming obscenities,” such as calling Bromfield a “slut” and a “whore,” court records. He repeatedly denied her breaks and days off if he believed she would spend that time with another man.
Cooper’s manager ordered him to take anger management classes, but never followed up to make sure he did so, according to the Seventh Circuit ruling.
While a federal judge ruled against Bromfield’s mother, the Chicago-based appeals court reversed Friday with a sympathetic opinion indicating the justices were horrified by the facts of the case.
“Cooper was not on the defendants’ premises when he killed Alisha, nor did he use their chattels. But he used something else the defendants gave him: supervisory authority over Alisha. He threatened to fire her or reduce her hours if she did not go with him to his sister’s wedding,” Judge Hamilton wrote. “He thus threatened to take what the Supreme Court calls ‘tangible employment actions.’ He could do that only because the defendants made him Alisha’s supervisor.”
Home Depot argued that even if it could have foreseen Cooper’s harassment might escalate from name-calling to physical violence, it could not anticipate he would murder Bromfield.
But the court said that question should be left for a jury.
“The amended complaint recounts how Cooper’s behavior escalated: from private inappropriate comments and touching, to workplace retaliation, to continual harassment and monitoring, and finally to public outbursts, verbal abuse and physical intimidation,” Hamilton said. “Hearing such evidence, a reasonable jury could easily find that the employers could and should have foreseen that Cooper would take the small further step to violence.”
In a footnote, the opinion scorches Home Depot for “what might be described generously as excessive zeal by advocates.” Its counsel minimized Cooper’s behavior as “rude” and “mean to inanimate objects,” and characterized Cooper and Bromfield’s trip to the wedding as a “date.”
Hamilton was clearly appalled by Home Depot’s statement to the lower court that Cooper had “made a few mistakes.”
“Anyone who saw Cooper [throw a fit in the parking lot] could have easily concluded that Cooper either was dangerous because he had lost control of himself or was trying to frighten Alisha,” the opinion concludes.