Harassment factory 

Justine Maldonado says it started on a January evening in 1998. She was test-driving a Lincoln Continental at Ford’s Wixom Assembly Plant, where she works, when her supervisor, Daniel Bennett, pulled up beside her and told her to follow him. Maldonado assumed that Bennett wanted to drop his car off at a plant garage and needed a lift back to his work station. She followed him through the grounds of the massive plant, where Lincoln Continentals and Town Cars are manufactured. When Bennett stopped, Maldonado pulled in beside him. Bennett told the then 34-year-old woman to get into his car, which she did. He asked her to meet him after work. Maldonado said no. She says Bennett responded by grabbing her shirt and making comments about her breast size. Maldonado slapped his hands. Bennett then asked what color panties she was wearing and if he could see them. He grabbed her pants. She slapped his hands again, reminded him that he was married and that she had a boyfriend. After she rebuffed his advances, Bennett unzipped his pants, exposed his penis and asked her to “suck it.” Maldonado refused, got out of the car and drove away in her vehicle.

These allegations are contained in sworn testimony in a sexual harassment lawsuit Maldonado filed in Wayne County Circuit Court against Ford Motor Company and Bennett.

Maldonado says that was not the only time her former supervisor sexually harassed her. Her lawsuit states that Bennett exposed his penis on two other occasions, followed her after work, put his hands down her blouse and repeatedly grabbed his crotch in her presence. Maldonado testified that she complained to union officials and Ford management, including her uncle, who is the plant operations manager, but that the company failed to investigate. Maldonado never contacted the police about Bennett.

Ford contends that Maldonado never filed a written complaint; and when she made a verbal one to the labor relations department in 1999, the company could not investigate because she was on medical leave.

“When someone is on medical leave, we don’t call them at home. That is our policy,” says Anne Marie Gattari, a spokeswoman for Ford.

Maldonado is not the only woman employed at the Wixom factory who is suing Ford and Bennett for sexual harassment. Three other women filed lawsuits alleging similar encounters; one of the lawsuits was dismissed last year and is being appealed.

Ford is facing two other lawsuits that do not involve Bennett. Filed on behalf of five women employed at the Wixom plant, they allege sexual harassment, a hostile work environment and other illegal acts.

About 800 women work at the plant, which employs nearly 4,000.

Since the lawsuits were filed, more women have come forward to claim they were subjected to sexual harassment — and that Ford failed to address it. What the company does, they say, is punish those who complain.

“I was asked by an attorney why I didn’t tell anyone about the sexual harassment I experienced and I said because they will blackball you,” says Sharon Angus, who has worked at the Wixom plant for nearly 30 years; she is not suing the company. “Many women walked out of there because they couldn’t take the harassment.”

Ford policy prohibits Gattari from commenting on cases in litigation. But she says the auto company has a comprehensive policy for addressing allegations of sexual harassment that includes a hotline where employees can anonymously register complaints, which are logged, tracked and investigated by company headquarters.

Bennett, who was put on paid leave by Ford after the lawsuits were filed, declined to comment.

His attorney, Sam Morgan, insists that Maldonado and the other women suing Ford and Bennett are lying about the harassment and are motivated in large part by greed.

“Did you see how much they are asking for?” asks Morgan, referring to a press release that said the plaintiffs are seeking $50 million in damages. “Come on!”

Perhaps the plaintiffs are colluding to pick Ford’s pockets. And perhaps Maldonado is the woman Ford portrays her to be — a greedy, sexually wanton, emotionally troubled ringleader of a conspiracy to gouge the company.

Or perhaps she and the other women are telling the truth.

Bennett was convicted in 1995 of indecent exposure. A police report states that three high-school girls complained to Wixom police that he honked and waved at them on I-275, pointed at his exposed penis and stroked it while driving a company car.

Who is telling the truth? A jury will decide. Maldonado’s case is scheduled to go to trial next month.

Maldonado’s accusations

Justine Maldonado began working on Ford’s Wixom assembly line in 1989, and has worked in various other departments during her career. In January 1998, Maldonado was transferred to the afternoon shift as an inspector, test-driving new cars. That’s when she claims her trouble began.

Just days after Bennett allegedly exposed himself to Maldonado the first time, he asked her to follow him to the same location on company property. Maldonado says she was terrified, but cooperated because he was her boss. When he asked her to get in the car, she says that his penis was exposed and he asked her, “Why don’t you jack me off?” When she said no, he grabbed her hand and placed it on his penis. Maldonado fled. Though Maldonado testified in her deposition that she told a friend and relatives about the harassment, she did not report Bennett to management.

By June 1998, Maldonado was no longer working under Bennett; she had been transferred to a job signing people up for unemployment. She testified that she left work one day about 4:30 p.m. When she stopped at a traffic light, Maldonado saw Bennett in her rearview mirror. He motioned for her to pull over. Maldonado initially refused. But she feared that he would follow her home and pulled over in a parking lot of a flower shop. When she parked, Bennett pulled in beside her and asked what she was doing. Maldonado told him that she was on her way to meet her boyfriend. Bennett walked to her car and put his hand down her blouse. Maldonado slapped his hand. Bennett asked her to give him a blow job. Maldonado left, but as she drove away, she says she saw Bennett in his car, masturbating.

The following day, Maldonado told Betty Roberts, the union benefits representative, what had happened. Maldonado testified that before she told Roberts who had followed her, Roberts guessed that it was Bennett. Roberts allegedly told Maldonado about Bennett’s prior indecent exposure charge. Roberts has not yet testified in this case; she declined to talk to Metro Times.

About two days after talking to Roberts, Maldonado was laid off due to a normal summer plant closing. During this time, Maldonado said she was trying to decide whether to tell anyone else about the alleged sexual harassment.

One person she told is her uncle, Joe Howard, a plant supervisor, although when she did so is unclear. She says it was October 1998. He says that he first heard about it in October through his then-wife, Sandy Howard, who is a plant production supervisor. In a letter to plant officials, he said that Maldonado did not bring her allegations directly to him until more than a year later. (Sandy Howard said in a deposition that she first told Joe in March 1999.)

Maldonado claims she told a co-worker, Dave Ferris, in the fall of 1998 that Bennett had harassed her. Ferris testified that Bennett laughed when he told him to leave Maldonado alone.

But Maldonado says that Bennett wouldn’t leave her alone, that he repeatedly grabbed his penis and moved his tongue like a “lizard” in her presence

Sharon Angus, who has been an hourly employee at the Wixom plant for nearly three decades, tells Metro Times that Maldonado was terrified of Bennett; Angus has not yet testified in this case. She says that the first time she saw Bennett enter a room where she and Maldonado were working, Maldonado panicked.

“Dan come through the big door and she said, ‘Don’t leave me alone with him,’” recalls Angus. “She was hurting my arm with her nails. There were nail marks in my arm. She would not let go.”

Angus says Maldonado told her Bennett had exposed himself to her and had followed her.

Angus tells Metro Times that she saw Bennett grab his penis and wiggle his tongue at Maldonado four or five years ago.

“He walked through the door and didn’t see me and he saw Justine in the room and he grabbed his crotch and jiggles it up and down and sticks his tongue out and darts it back and forth,” says Angus. “He laughed and left.”

In June 1999, Maldonado told a union steward, Bill McKeever, about Bennett’s harassment. McKeever testified that he and Maldonado’s uncle both confronted Bennett about his behavior.

Bennett’s attorney tells Metro Times that he also spoke to Angus and “her story is already changing.” Morgan wouldn’t say how it changed from what Angus told Metro Times. But Morgan added that “Ms. Angus is a very, very good friend of Justine Maldonado’s. I’m not surprised she has been convinced to help.”

In the winter of 1999, while on stress leave, Maldonado complained to labor relations about Bennett and was advised to provide a written statement, which she didn’t do. The company didn’t pursue her for a statement after that.

“We did not call her at home because we respect their privacy when on medical leave. We do not contact them. For that reason we didn’t follow up with her,” says Gattari. “So when she came back to work in March 2000, she still hadn’t filed any type of complaint and never mentioned it again. It wasn’t until she mentioned it four months later when she filed her lawsuit that we had any substantive information that we could begin to investigate.”

When Maldonado did return, Ford did not inquire about her allegations. The company assigned her to a small office for the next year with nothing to do, she says. Maldonado spent the time reading, playing computer games and making Halloween costumes for her nieces and nephews.

Maldonado, who is out on stress leave again, filed her lawsuit against Ford and Bennett last year. Since the lawsuit was filed, she says Ford has dredged up her past, including financial, phone and college records, e-mails, her father’s criminal history and her brother’s drug addiction, and contacted a former lover.

“They are investigating everything in my life, but not the man who did it to me, not the man who had the criminal record, was in a company car and exposed himself to high-school girls and was convicted of it,” says Maldonado. “But when a woman complains about anything, they investigate that woman to the fullest.”

Maldonado, who says she has quit seeing a therapist for fear that it may give Ford more ammunition, struggled over her decision to sue. She says childhood trauma compelled her to do it.

According to psychiatric records, Maldonado’s grandfather molested her for several years when she was a girl. He also molested her cousins. Maldonado didn’t tell anyone about the abuse — and she regrets it. She feels that had she done so, she could have spared her cousins from abuse. She feared that if she did not come forward about Bennett, more women would be sexually harassed.

Ford’s defense

According to Ford, Maldonado is an overweight opportunist who is colluding with co-workers to make a fortune by falsely accusing Bennett of sexual harassment and falsely accusing the company of doing nothing about it. Ford and Bennett’s attorneys lay out their theory in two documents (one on Ford’s behalf, the other for Bennett) that are submitted to an independent mediation panel of three lawyers who determine the worth of the case. This is a routine step designed to settle cases without the time and expense of a trial.

The Ford document cites Maldonado’s weight, which, at the time, was “in excess of 250 pounds.” It also includes a statement of employee Bethany Cannon, taken by a union representative about a month after Maldonado filed her lawsuit. It begins, “Dan Bennett is not the type of person to do the things Justine claims. We could talk about sexual things in front of Dan, but he never would say anything back, he would just put his head down.” Cannon also writes that Maldonado told her about her lawsuit and whispered, “You could say he did it to you too.”

Cannon says that Maldonado made sexual comments, had sex in a car in the parking lot with a co-worker and that around 1992, Maldonado “frequently” took off her bra and panties on the assembly line and hung them up for everybody to see.

Maldonado says that claim is absolutely false. “I wouldn’t be able to take my underwear off without taking off my pants,” she says. “Why wouldn’t it be in my personnel file that I was standing on the line naked from the waist down?”

A supervisor, Brian McDade, testified that around 1991, Maldonado pinned him against a desk and said, “I can fuck you better than anyone.” When she asked him to spare her from certain tasks, she would “Pull down her shirt, show her cleavage and say, ‘Please, please, please,’” according to McDade.

Maldonado says that McDade and Bennett are good friends.

Ford alludes to Maldonado’s sexual appetite by citing notes written by her psychiatrist in 1992. In Ford’s words, “Plaintiff herself confided in her psychiatrist that she derived satisfaction in her life by overindulging in sexual activity.” However, the psychiatrist’s notes state, “She feels that the gratification that she gets from eating and overindulgence in sex, they have to be changed and she needs to have more constructive ways of achieving satisfaction in her life.”

As for the accusations that Bennett exposed himself to Maldonado, Ford questions why she got into the car with him a second time if he had assaulted her once before. The company questions the validity of her story about the incident in the flower shop parking lot, since it was daylight when it allegedly happened and no “passers-by intervened, or apparently even noticed.”

To Ford, this is a “he-said, she-said” case. Maldonado never told anyone in a position of authority — including the police — about the alleged harassment.

To prevail in a sexual harassment case, the plaintiff must prove that she notified the company, according to state law. Ford contends that Maldonado did not tell anyone at the company in a position of authority about Bennett.

The only evidence that Maldonado relies on, according to the company, is that Bennett was convicted of indecent exposure in 1995 — evidence that Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Kathleen I. McDonald ruled is irrelevant and cannot be used in this case. (McDonald is no longer presiding; the case is now before Judge William J. Giovan. Maldonado’s attorney has filed a motion to allow the conviction into evidence; Giovan has yet to rule on that point.)

Ford says Maldonado, who filed for bankruptcy in 1992, concocted her story to solve her longstanding financial problems, a lifetime of emotional problems, and because she never wanted to work again.

Gattari says that in the past two years, the auto company has updated its sexual harassment policy, which includes a $40 million training program.

“We have reached over 90,000 plant employees,” says Gattari. “That training includes issues on self-respect, respect for each other, tolerance and gives a lot of information on the law, on what is and is not accepted within the law.”

If Maldonado’s complaints are fabricated, as the company contends, what is the impetus?

According to Ford and Bennett’s attorney, Maldonado was angry at Bennett over a disciplinary action that resulted in some docked pay. In retaliation, she started weaving her tale when she learned of Bennett’s indecent exposure conviction. Then she recruited another woman, Lula Elezovic, who she knew also was having trouble with Bennett. (Lula Elezovic sued Ford and Bennett for sexual harassment; her case was dismissed and is being appealed.) After Maldonado filed her lawsuit, Ford alleges that she and her attorneys convinced other women to come forward and sue Ford and Bennett.

Bennett’s attorney, Sam Morgan, says that it is his client who is the victim.

In a document he submitted to the independent mediation panel, Morgan wrote, that the entire series of cases “has been conjured up by the plaintiff.”

Morgan writes: “Here is a guy who had a traffic encounter on I-275, where he flipped three girls off with his middle finger. They accused him of flipping them off with his penis, somehow managing to do that while he was driving 60 mph or faster down the road.”

Morgan resents that the plaintiffs are talking to Metro Times. “The plaintiffs and attorneys are intent on gaining as much publicity to create as much prejudice in the jury pool,” he says. “Their intent is to try this case in the media, and I’m not interested in contributing to that because that is not fair. I want a fair trial for Mr. Bennett.”

Last year, Morgan helped Bennett get his indecent exposure record expunged.

The mediation panel was split 2-1 on Maldonado’s case; two attorneys agreed that Maldonado case is worth $300,000; but the third disagreed and did not provide any amount. Both sides rejected the award, meaning the case will go to trial unless it is settled first.

Attorney Deborah Gordon, who has represented plaintiffs in employment discrimination and sexual harassment cases for two decades, says that $300,000 is a “very good award.”

“The two mediators at least thought something significant happened,” says Gordon. “You don’t give $300,000 if you don’t think there are some emotional damages. Obviously, the other one thought it was a bunch of BS”

Lula’s case

Lula Elezovic sued Ford and Bennett in 1999 in Wayne County Circuit Court for sexual harassment. Elezovic began working for Ford’s Wayne Assembly Plant in 1978, on the assembly line. In 1988, she was transferred to the Wixom plant, where she was a quality-control inspector.

In the summer of 1995, Bennett allegedly exposed his penis, masturbated and asked her for a blow job, according to Elezovic’s lawsuit. She testified that she complained to two Ford managers about Bennett a few months after the incident. Elezovic, who is Albanian, told the managers in confidence so that her family and community would not find out, she testified.

Attorney Alice Jennings, who represents Elezovic, says her client wanted to keep her complaints private because in Albanian culture, a married woman could be ostracized by her family or husband for saying that another man showed sexual interest in her.

Bennett became Elezovic’s superintendent in 1995. Her lawsuit alleges that because she would not submit to his sexual advances, he retaliated by moving her from the day shift to the night shift, changing her job duties, rescinding her medical restrictions and following her on the freeway.

Elezovic also testified that between the summer of 1995 and 1998 Bennett rubbed his penis and licked his lips in her presence, commented on her breasts and attempted to open her blouse. She testified that in October 1998, she told Joe Howard, the plant operations manager, about Bennett masturbating in her presence.

(Howard testified that Elezovic told him this in November 1999, and that he told Bennett to leave Elezovic alone. In a memo he wrote, Howard states that when he confronted Bennett, Bennett said twice that “He was going to fuck that bitch, meaning Lula.”)

Elezovic’s lawsuit states that when she was leaving work on Sept. 24, 1999, Bennett allegedly followed her and motioned her to pull off the road; he allegedly did so again on Oct. 20, 1999. Elezovic sued Ford and Bennett in October 1999. She testified that the following month, Bennett followed her again. She filed a complaint with Wixom police Nov. 29, 1999.

Elezovic says Bennett is not the only one who sexually harassed her. She testified that then-plant manager Jeffrey Haller, who has retired, told her in 1996 that he is “a little man with a big penis.”

(Haller was also sued in 1998 by a former Wixom plant manager Cindy Henderson for sexual harassment; that case was settled, but a confidentiality agreement prevents either party from discussing it.)

Elezovic’s attorney contends that Ford does not take sexual harassment complaints seriously. As evidence, Jennings cites how managers at Wixom handled Bennett’s indecent exposure conviction.

Bennett’s 1995 indecent exposure case surfaced during discovery in Elezovic’s lawsuit. According to Haller, it was not until the Elezovic case that he learned that Bennett had been convicted. The Wixom police contacted Ford security the day Bennett was accused of indecent exposure; the license plate number that the high-school girls recorded matched the company car Bennett drove that day. Haller testified that he asked Bennett about the incident and that Bennett denied that it had happened.

“I believed him when he told me that he was innocent of the charges,” said Haller. Haller also testified that he never followed up to see if Bennett had been convicted.

Morgan, Bennett’s attorney, contends that Elezovic’s didn’t inform Ford of her sexual harassment claims until she sued. He also says her allegations are false and her case is rife with inconsistencies. Morgan cites what he says is one of the glaring inconsistencies that came out at trial last year: Elezovic testified that she first told her son-in-law, who is an attorney, that “something sexual happened to her at work” in 1996. But she was too embarrassed to go into detail about it because such talk in Albanian culture is taboo.

Elezovic also testified that her son-in-law didn’t learn about Bennett exposing himself until 1999, when her therapist told him. However, her son-in-law signed an affidavit which states that Elezovic did go into detail in 1996 about Bennett exposing his penis and requesting sexual favors.

Morgan’s unimpressed with her invocation of cultural pressures.

“She brought this whole cultural thing and insulting to a lot of people on the jury,” says Morgan. “As if people from Albania find sexual harassment more offensive than Americans do.”

Elezovic’s case is the only one against Ford and Bennett that has gone to trial. After about a three-week jury trial, the defendants filed a motion asking Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Kathleen McDonald, who presided, to dismiss the case. McDonald, who would not allow Bennett’s 1995 indecent exposure conviction to be admitted into evidence, ruled that Elezovic had not proved her case.

“The fact of the matter is that there was no notice to Ford,” the judge wrote. “The only people she told were supervisors. Under normal circumstances I would agree that that would be enough. But in this case it was told to them in confidence. She asked them not to repeat it. And again, she complained that she couldn’t come forward because of her culture.”

The ruling is being appealed.

More accusations

Pam Perez, who began working at the Wixom plant in 1990, sued Ford and Bennett for sexual harassment earlier this year. Her lawsuit alleges that Bennett repeatedly asked her out.

“You get that a lot from management in there,” Perez tells Metro Times. “A labor relations person called me and asked me out. A superintendent asked me out repeatedly.”

In a sworn deposition, she testified that in 1999, Bennett allegedly offered her money to buy something from Victoria’s Secret and model it for him. That same year, while in Bennett’s office, she says that he tried to give her money and asked her to meet him at a motel after work. When she refused, she says, he pulled out his penis and stroked it.

According to Perez, the money was hers to keep if she “took care of him there.”

Perez also testified that a supervisor who regularly asked her out called her at home in 1997 and said, “picture I’m sucking on your clit.”

But Perez never complained to management. She says she feared that her husband and brother, who both work at the plant, might get fired — and she didn’t think her complaints would be addressed.

Perez tells Metro Times that she used to complain to a union steward about the supervisor who regularly asked her out.

“They said that is the crap you have to expect,” she says.

Perez was reluctant to sue Ford, but when she learned that Bennett was convicted of indecent exposure in 1995, she changed her mind.

“Finding out about the girls on I-275 really, really bothered me,” says Perez. “They [Ford] knew that and they didn’t do anything. That’s what made me come forward.”

A trial date has not been set.

Milissa McClements began working for a company that provides cafeteria services to the Wixom plant in March 1998. In a lawsuit filed last year in Oakland County Circuit Court, McClements alleges that Bennett repeatedly asked her out, but she refused. She testified that in November 1998, while in the cafeteria stock room, Bennett allegedly came up behind McClements, grabbed her by the shoulders and stuck his tongue in her mouth. McClements pushed him away; there were no witnesses to the incident, and she didn’t tell management, but did confide in Perez and Maldonado. The following week, Bennett allegedly tried to kiss McClements again.

“And he said, ‘Come on, you know you want it. Isn’t there somewhere in here we can go and have sex?’” she testified.

According to her lawsuit, McClements didn’t report Bennett to management because she feared retaliation.

Shannon Vaubel, who is not suing Ford or Bennett, testified in the Elezovic case that in 1997, Bennett grabbed her by the shoulders and attempted to kiss her.

Not all the sexual harassment allegations involve Bennett.

Stephanie Caddell, who was hired at the Wixom plant in 1998 as a production supervisor, sued Ford in Wayne County Circuit Court last year for sexual harassment, hostile work environment and other illegal acts. The lawsuit alleges that on June 26, 2000, her supervisor said, “I am here for you. I know you don’t believe me, but I can help you get where you want to go. I know where you are trying to go, I’ll help you. When you’re ready to fuck me, just let me know.”

Four more female supervisors filed a lawsuit against Ford in Wayne County Circuit Court last year alleging sexual harassment, race discrimination and other illegal acts.

Attorney George Washington, who represents Maldonado, Perez and McClements, says that more than 50 internal complaints of sexual harassment were filed 1995-2000 by women at the Wixom plant; Metro Times could not review the complaints; a judge has ordered them sealed at Ford’s request.

Are six lawsuits alleging sexual harassment at one factory a lot?

“I don’t think you can draw any inferences from the number of cases,” says attorney Sue Ellen Eisenberg, who practiced employment discrimination and sexual harassment law for 25 years and has sued Ford in the past.

She also trains companies on how to prevent sexual harassment and what to do when faced with accusations.

As for the 50 or so internal complaints of sexual harassment, Eisenberg says, “I think it is suggestive that there may be a problem with the enforcement of their sex harassment policies.”

What counts most, says Eisenberg, is what company managers do once they receive a sexual harassment complaint.

“Upon company receipt of sex harassment complaints, the company is required to do an immediate, objective, comprehensive investigation,” says Eisenberg. “It not only means talking to the person claiming they were harassed and the harasser; it means talking to each and every possible witness, being consistent and assuring people they will not be retaliated against.”

If the same person were accused more than once of sexual harassment, Eisenberg says, “I would consider that very seriously.”

“Ford has an excellent zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment,” she says. “But the bigger question is, does Ford walk the talk?”

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at amullen@metrotimes.com

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