During the five years that Alisha Bromfield worked as a florist who supplied flowers to Home Depot, she was intermittently sexually harassed by her supervisor, Brian Cooper, according to a lawsuit filed by Bromfield's mother against the company in 2014. The harassment she endured from her supervisor, according to the complaint, "included verbally abusing her while throwing things, controlling and monitoring her both during and outside her work hours."
According to the complaint, Cooper had a history of harassing the women who worked for him. A recent high school graduate, referred to in the complaint as Jessica, quit after Cooper started calling her "his girlfriend," repeatedly made "comments about his genitals to her and [rubbed] himself against her," and her complaints to the company went unheard. When Bromfield started her job at Grand Flower, he switched to fixating on her.
"Cooper became increasingly controlling of Alisha's time away from work," the complaint states. "If she was going to spend a lunch break with a man, he sometimes denied her lunch breaks. Once, when she asked him for a day off, he called her a 'whore.'" On one occasion listed in the suit, after Bromfield told management about the abuse, they simply sent Cooper home early. Following another incident, they required him to go to anger management, but did not follow up on his treatment. In any case, he remained Alisha's supervisor, according to the suit.
The abuse culminated when Cooper mandated that Bromfield accompany him to a wedding in August of 2012 and told her that she would lose her job if she declined. During that trip, he allegedly asked Bromfield to be in a relationship with him. When she said no, he murdered Bromfield, who was pregnant at the time, and raped her corpse. She was 21 years old.
In 2014, Cooper was found guilty of homicide and sexual assault, and sentenced to two consecutive life terms without parole.
It may seem obvious that employers have a responsibility to prevent workplace sexual harassment, and certainly to prevent it from escalating. But Bromfield's mother, Sherry Anicich, has been unsuccessful in her attempts hold Home Depot responsible for failing to discipline or fire Cooper for sexual harassment while her daughter was still alive—last year, Chicago district court threw out the lawsuit. (Though Bromfield was employed at Grand Flower, the home improvement chain, the complaint alleges, was in charge of the job site and the safety of employees working there.)
The Chicago court originally ruled that Home Depot could not be responsible for Bromfield's death. The judges echoed Home Depot's argument that the retailer has "no obligation to fire or demote employees because of their 'usage of inappropriate language, or sexual misconduct.'"
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.
This week, a ruling by three judges on an appeals court rightfully blasted the decision and reversed it. They noted that the District court's acceptance of Home Depot's defense—"that Cooper never made explicit threats and never physically harmed anyone"—wrongfully ignores his alleged, threatening behavior.
"Anyone who saw Cooper, for example, 'throwing and slamming items in the garden center and… parking lot while screaming obscenities,' could have easily concluded that Cooper either was dangerous because he had lost control of himself or was trying to frighten Alisha," a judge wrote in the ruling.
Home Depot additionally argued that, since Bromfield's killing did not take place on their property, they could not be responsible. The judges also rebutted this: "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," the ruling states. "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."
The appeals court ordered that the case go back to the district court for a jury trial. "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," the judges ruled. "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 statement, the National Women's Law Center commended the ruling. "The decision by the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit properly recognizes that pursuant to sexual harassment laws, employers have an obligation to address, and also seek to prevent, sexual harassment," Maya Raghu, the organization's director of workplace equality, told Broadly. "Companies may fail to address sexual harassment in some cases because their sexual harassment policies and programs are inadequate, or perhaps because the company's leadership fails to condemn such behavior in the strongest terms. Unfortunately, this discourages employees from complaining about harassment, and allows harassers to evade accountability."