Company Owner Repeatedly Claimed Women Do Not Belong in the Building Trades and Sexually Harassed Female Employees for Years, Federal Agency Charged
SEATTLE — Spokane Valley-based HVAC contractor Air Control Heating & Air Conditioning, Inc., which does business as Air Control Heating & Electric, Inc., has agreed to pay $361,000 to seven current and former female employees and to be subject to federal oversight for a five-year period to resolve a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency announced today.
According to the EEOC’s suit, Air Control’s founder, owner and president, Maxim Johnston, sexually harassed female employees on a near-daily basis since 2010 and repeatedly stated that female employees did not belong in the building trades because of their sex. His behavior included offensive graphic comments and sexually explicit innuendoes; touching women without their consent; unwanted remarks about their bodies; requests to wear more revealing clothing; leering; and offering tickets to a nearby strip club, the EEOC charged.
Despite multiple reports of such conduct over the years, corporate directors (who were also company managers) failed to take prompt or effective actions to stop Johnston’s harassment, the EEOC said. Even after an HR expert hired by Air Control compared the company’s workplace culture to a “sewer” and criticized tolerating Johnston’s behavior, its directors allowed him to continue his sexual harassment unabated, causing one female employee to quit.
Such alleged conduct violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The EEOC filed suit (EEOC v. Air Control Heating & Air Conditioning, Inc. d/b/a Air Control Heating & Electric, Inc. (Case No. 2:21-cv-00347) in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process.
Under the five-year consent decree settling the suit, Air Control will pay $361,000 – the maximum compensatory damages available by statute for an employer of Air Control’s size – to the seven claimants and full back pay for the female employee who was forced to quit. The decree also requires that the company retain an independent consultant to assist Air Control in developing anti-discrimination policies and procedures, receive and independently and confidentially investigate any complaints of sexual harassment and/or retaliation, and determine appropriate corrective action to remedy any complaints of discrimination or retaliation.
Air Control will also implement companywide anti-discrimination training, individualized training for the owner, and policies to ensure accountability with regard to anti-discrimination practices. The EEOC will monitor the workplace for the duration of the decree to ensure compliance.
“The EEOC’s lawsuit should remind employers of the need to treat sexual harassment in the workplace as a serious issue,” said EEOC Seattle Field Office Director Elizabeth Cannon. “Regardless of whether it happens to women in a male-dominated industry or anywhere else, sex discrimination and harassment in the workplace is illegal. Employers who allow sexually hostile work environments violate the law.”
EEOC Senior Trial Attorney May Che added, “Air Control’s owner abused his power over female employees who deserve to work free from harassment. We applaud the courage of these women who spoke out against such abusive behavior and made this outcome possible.”
Air Control Heating and Electric, Inc. is based in Spokane Valley and provides HVAC, electrical and mechanical contracting services. The company employs approximately 40 people.
The EEOC’s Seattle Field Office has jurisdiction over Eastern Washington.
More information about sexual harassment can be found at https://www.eeoc.gov/sexual-harassment
The EEOC advances opportunity in the workplace by enforcing federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. More information is available at www.eeoc.gov.