$780k settlement reached in sexual harassment case

A New Hampshire oil dealer labeled “a serial sexual harasser” will pay $780,000 to settle claims lodged by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The EEOC, filed suit against Fred J. Fuller, owner of Hudson-based Fred Fuller Oil Co. Inc. and former owner of Fuller’s Convenience Store in Moultonborough, in 2003. The agency charged that Fuller sexually harassed five female employees and tried to get one to lie for him, announced the settlement June 30.

The agency alleged that Fuller groped the women, demanded sexual favors, fired or forced out some after they complained, tried to get one to lie about the harassment, and groped one during a sexual harassment training session.

Fuller and the businesses admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement.

Fuller, who is divorced, also must get sensitivity training, provide additional training for the oil company’s managers and strengthen the company’s harassment policies.

The women’s shares of the settlement range from $70,000 to $222,000.

Citing its own investigation and state Human Rights Commission records going back a decade, the federal agency said of Fuller: “The record is abundantly clear that not only does he ‘not get it,’ he just doesn’t care. He is a serial sexual harasser.”

The EEOC charged that, “for at least the last 10 years, Fred Fuller has been sexually harassing women. He has continued to sexually harass women even as the charges have escalated. He has continued to sexually harass, intimidate and retaliate against women even after the EEOC has made it a priority to put a stop to his illegal and offensive behavior.”

According to the agency, “Fuller engaged in almost every type of sexual harassment possible, short of rape. He assaulted, he touched, he humiliated, he berated and he insulted these women, all on account of their sex. His behavior was repeated, routine, egregious and continuous.”

Peter Callaghan, one of Fuller’s lawyers, said his client did not admit any wrongdoing in making the settlement and did it for the good of the business. “The EEOC wrote to every employee and pressured people to try and join the case. It was very disruptive to the business and to the customer service to have this going on,” Callaghan told The Telegraph in a telephone interview. “He felt it best for himself and his employees to resolve the case.”

In fact, said Callaghan, the charges were not true, and the case “demonstrates the EEOC’s overzealousness … They were relentless in going after Fuller Oil employees to try to get them to join the case and seriously disrupted the business.”

“We were no more relentless in going after Fred Fuller than he was in going after the women who work for him,” countered Mark Penzel, senior trial lawyer at the EEOC’s Boston-area office. “The facts spoke for themselves.”

One of the women told investigators Fuller’s harassment of her began at their first dinner in July 2001 before she was hired, and reached a peak five months later.

“He asked me what I was doing for Christmas and as I started (to answer), he grabbed my breast, kind of grabbed me like this, like you were tweaking a little kid’s bike horn,” the woman said in her sworn deposition.

“I said, ‘What is that? What is that about?’ And he asked me if I enjoyed it. And I said, ‘No, I didn’t enjoy it.’”

The convenience store worker recalled a July 2001 incident inside a beer and wine cooler. The woman told investigators that Fuller grabbed her buttocks and said, “Oh yeah, baby, that’s the way I like it.”

In his deposition, Fuller recalled touching her on the shoulder and cheeks but said there was nothing sexual about it.

“When I walked by her, she was standing there like a deer in headlights looking out into the store. And when I went to the beer cooler, the beer cooler was like a shambles, like a hurricane had been through there so I didn’t have a lot of patience with (her) that day,” Fuller said.

In addition to the money, the settlement requires Fuller to hire an independent agent to investigate future sexual harassment claims, undergo sensitivity training sessions and revise his oil company’s sexual harassment policies.

“I think it’s a wonderful settlement for a substantial amount of money, particularly given the size of the company,” Penzel said. “Just as important are the safeguards that we’ve tried to put in place to protect his female employees.”

Fuller’s critics said complaints persisted after Fuller set up a reporting system they claimed was undermined with indifference or intimidation of those who brought complaints.

Charles Ballard, a 23-year general manager of the company until his retirement, said a Chicago training expert gave tips on how to limit harassment complaints.

“For one thing, don’t put it in writing. Take the verbal complaint to somebody else but don’t put it in writing. Once you put it in writing, the complaint is on file someplace,’’ Ballard recalled in his deposition.

Ballard told lawyers for both sides he saw Fuller harass three women, and said his boss had become more difficult during a bitter divorce and custody fight.

“I advised everybody to stay away from Fred Fuller. It was just a matter of what mood he was in,’’ Ballard said.

In failed attempts to dismiss the case, his lawyers argued Fuller’s behavior was at times offensive but did not rise to creating a sexually hostile environment.

“The occasional, vulgar banter, tinged with sexual innuendo, of coarse or boorish workers is not pervasive enough or offensive enough to be objectionable,” Fuller’s lawyers argued.

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