Trucking Firm Said to Shrug at Sex Assaults

     RIVERSIDE, Calif. (CN) – Female long-haul truck drivers must carry weapons to fend off sexual assaults by co-drivers because CRST Expedited trucking ignores their complaints, women claim in a federal class action.
     Lead plaintiffs Cathy Sellars, Claudia Lopez and Leslie Fortune sued CRST Expedited in Federal Court on Monday, in a lengthy complaint alleging discrimination and retaliation.
     Sexual assaults of female CRST drivers are so pervasive that others in the trucking industry joke that the acronym, which stands for Cedar Rapids Steel Transport, also stands for “Constantly Raping Student Truckers,” according to the lawsuit.
     The women’s attorney Joshua Friedman told Courthouse News that CRST has been ignoring complaints of sexual harassment for more than a decade.
     “There have been allegations of rapes, sexual assaults, and assaults with weapons. Many women say they have taken to carrying knives and Tasers to defend themselves,” Friedman said in an interview.
     “Our client Leslie Fortune had to sleep with knives under her pillow and refer to them to get her co-driver to leave her alone. Another client had to have a screwdriver,” co-counsel Giselle Schuetz added on the conference call.
     The attorneys said CRST’s response to the allegations is “really beyond troubling.”
     Based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, CRST Expedited is a subsidiary of CRTS International.
     The plaintiffs say male drivers constantly make offensive sexual remarks to female drivers, comment on their bodies, proposition them for sex and sexually assault them – and CRST does nothing to stop it.
     As a result, women “have to fend off or worry about rape by their trainer, while enduring express threats of being failed, while being objectified and told to perform sex acts,” according to the 74-page complaint.
     Training costs thousands of dollars, but CRST will forgive the debt if a trainee signs an eight-month contract to drive for the company. If she is sexually assaulted during training or before her contract ends, she must endure the abuse for the sake of her job, report it to deaf ears, or quit and have to repay her training costs, according to the complaint.
     “When female drivers refuse to have sex with them, male drivers retaliate, including but not limited to by kidnapping them, kicking them off shared trucks, making false reports of misconduct, threatening them with weapons, beating them or threatening beatings, spreading rumors they are prostitutes, preventing them from contacting CRST for assistance, and refusing to assist them with work-related tasks,” the complaint states.
     The women say CRST gives lip service to their complaints and deliberately conducts inadequate, biased investigations that find nothing happened – so the women have been forced to carry weapons.
     CRST does not discipline men accused of harassment or sexual assault, according to the complaint. It merely classifies them as “no females,” an appealable designation forbidding them from driving with a woman for six months.
     But women who make complaints are forced to leave the truck even if they were driving it first, and have to wait without pay until someone from the company comes to pick them up, which can take as long as a week, the complaint states.
     Friedman called CRST’s no-females policy “astounding.”
     “It’s a matter of logic. If you don’t make factual findings on sexual assault allegations, what is the basis for a trainer’s ability to appeal?” he asked.
     Attorney Schuetz said their clients were never told which men were on the no-females list, or if the men were ever disciplined for harassing them.
     But CRST gives the names of women who complain about harassment to the entire pool of drivers, including the men they complained about, the complaint states.
     The EEOC filed a similar class action in 2007 alleging that CRST’s chronic pattern of ignoring female drivers’ complaints stretches back to at least 1999, but the court dismissed the case after the 8th Circuit found the EEOC had not fulfilled its conciliation duties before filing suit.
     Schuetz and Friedman said that case will not affect the new one because they are based on different legal theories.
     “We don’t see any legitimate basis to bring that court’s legal conclusions to bat here,” Friedman said. “The defense counsel will very likely try, but based on our analysis it should become a red herring and fail.”
     The attorneys said that reading the women’s depositions from the EEOC’s case partly inspired their own.
     “Once we started reading the depositions, we thought, ‘Why is there any reason to believe this is not happening?’ Our clients had similar stories. We concluded that we had a moral, ethical obligation to stop it,” Friedman said.
     Though the other women’s experiences may be time-barred, what happened to them can be brought in as evidence, the attorneys said.
     Defendant’s attorney Paul Mata said CRST takes the plaintiffs’ allegations seriously.
     “To ensure a safe work environment, the company has a strict policy against discrimination, retaliation and sexual harassment. Within the last year, Ms. Sellars filed a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing contesting these identical policies and practices. After a thorough investigation, the DFEH found no evidence to support these claims and dismissed her case,” Mata wrote in an email.
     “CRST is confident the result will be the same in the underlying claims alleged by plaintiffs in this matter.”
     Mata is with Lewis, Brisbois, Bisgaard & Smith, of Los Angeles.
     The plaintiffs seek class certification, an injunction, back pay, front pay, and general, special, and punitive damages for sexual discrimination, retaliation and constructive discharge, plus costs and fees.
     Schuetz and Friedman, of Mamaroneck, N.Y., and have applied to be admitted pro hac vice. Their co-counsel is Chris M. Heikaus Weaver with Aitken, Campbell, Heaikus Weaver of Riverside.
     Paul Mata is with Brisbois, Bisgaard & Smith of Los Angeles.
     Plaintiff Cathy Sellers claims one of her trainers made comments about her butt, masturbated on the bed where they were watching a movie pulled her shirt off while she was sleeping. She says she called Human Resources, which took her off the truck while her co-driver got to keep driving and earning money.
     She claims that another trainer shoved her into the passenger seat when she called dispatch to complain about him and drove off while holding her at knifepoint.
     Plaintiff Claudia Lopez claims that a trainer told her he would “rape her and marry her and taker her with [him]” when he got back from his road training.
     On another occasion, Lopez says, she awoke to find her co-driver naked and on top of her. Grabbing the screwdriver she kept under her pillow, she freed herself from the truck and called a CRST shuttle driver, but was reluctant to call Human Resources because she needed the money from driving, Lopez says in the complaint.
     Plaintiff Leslie Fortune claims several of her trainers propositioned her for sex. When she refused the advances of one of them, she says, he kicked her off his truck and spread rumors that she was a “lot lizard,” trucker slang for prostitute, and later yelled at her when he found out she filed a complaint against him.
     After she reported one trainer named threatening to rape her, she learned he had been promoted to classroom trainer, and another trainer did not stop badgering her for sex until she told him she kept knives under her pillow, Fortune says.

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