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Former Ophrah Producer Scores $500,000 in Iowa Sex Harassment Claims

Iowa- from – Sandra Peddicord doesn’t want to talk about the panic attacks or the rest of it. Things are calmer now, and her family wants to move on.

But if her sexual harassment lawsuit had gone to trial, jurors would have heard plenty of allegations: For two years, Peddicord said, her then-bosses gave her unwanted hugs and kisses to her forehead. They made unwelcome comments about her body. The office was rife with computer porn. A boss once licked her office window. And it all ended with months of crippling anxiety.

Kelly and Kevin Housby, the owners of Housby Mack Inc., have denied mistreating Peddicord or any other female employee. The brothers say the family tractor-trailer business, which they describe as founded on integrity, had “a clean slate” for harassment complaints in the roughly four decades leading up to 2008. But it’s been sued twice for sexual harassment (both settled) and once for age discrimination (ongoing) in the three years since.

Lawsuit documents describe Housby Mack as a cash-strapped playground for sophomoric salesmen – a place where meetings frequently included tales of strippers and massage parlors, where an informal ban existed on hiring unattractive office help and where the owners openly worried in 2008 before promoting Peddicord to vice president because “women are more emotional than men.”

Nationwide, sexual harassment complaints have gradually declined over the last decade. In Iowa, experts say it’s rare for complaints to be lodged by corporate executives such as Peddicord – but it’s common for bad behavior in companies to begin at the top.

“My sense of Housby Mack … is that it was an aberration – not that it didn’t fit the pattern, but that the defendants were ‘unusual’ in a number of ways,” said Illinois psychologist Louise Fletcher, a planned expert witness on Peddicord’s behalf.

“The old-fashioned way of saying this is that they ‘just didn’t get it’ to a degree that is unusual these days.”

The Housbys insisted during sworn testimony in April that they appreciated Peddicord for her marketing expertise, and they insisted that she was let go only because of bank pressure to stem the company’s $6 million, three-year tide of red ink. But records show the company wholly surrendered in its court battle with Peddicord less than three months after that round of videotaped depositions.

The brothers in June conceded judgment to Peddicord for $500,001 and essentially admitted her entitlement to the money.

Unusual for such arrangements, the settlement included no demand prohibiting Peddicord from discussing her case.

Peddicord’s attorneys supplied documents and copies of depositions at a reporter’s request. Their client, who now handles social media for the marketing department at a local bioscience company, declined to comment further when asked to elaborate.

The Housbys responded to questions about Peddicord with a letter stressing that they “strongly dispute” her allegations.

“We value our employees and the way in which they are treated,” the company said. “Unfortunately, in these tough economic times, cutbacks became necessary and decisions were made that affected a number of people. The recent and few civil complaints resulting from this action were settled by our insurance company, and we feel it is inappropriate to discuss the claims in the newspaper.

“We wish Miss Peddicord and all of our former employees the best of success in the future.”

More than three decades after “sexual harassment” first entered the cultural lexicon, most American workplaces today have policies intended to protect employees from degrading treatment based on their gender.

Federal statistics show sexual harassment complaints to the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission fell 16.6 percent over the last decade, from 15,222 in fiscal year 1999 to 12,696 in fiscal 2009. In Iowa, sex-discrimination complaints rose 29 percent over the last three years, from 557 in fiscal year 2006 to 717 in fiscal 2009.

Des Moines lawyers who deal with harassment claims say some businesses seem slow to change.

“Our biggest observation over the years is that corporate culture matters more than anything,” said Roxanne Conlin, the lawyer in a Polk County 1998 gender harassment claim that netted an $82 million verdict against United Parcel Service. “I have had dozens of complaints about one white-collar environment and one or two about an almost identical business where the emphasis from top management … has been unequivocal.”

A University of Minnesota study last year found that female supervisors are “more, rather than less, likely to be sexually harassed at work” because some men “employ harassment as an ‘equalizer’ for women who’ve stepped outside traditional gender roles.”

Conlin said her law office likewise sees more white- than blue-collar clients. But others insist that bad behavior toward women continues to be more likely in Iowa on shop floors than in offices.

“I don’t know that these guys are like, the last dinosaurs,” Frank Harty, Peddicord’s lawyer, said of Housby Mack. “But the thing that’s kind of interesting here is that it’s the CEO and the owners of the company who were doing it. That’s where you see it anymore – people who just think they can get away with it because they’re above the law.”

Housby Mack, founded by Jack Housby in 1969, fell into the day-to-day control of his sons shortly after Jack’s open-heart surgery in the late 1980s, lawsuit documents say. In addition to selling new tractor-trailers, the company now includes truck lube and repair businesses, a mixer parts business and Vocon Auctions, a nationwide sales operation for used trucks and construction equipment.

Eldest son Kevin Housby, 54, now serves as vice president and chief salesman, while middle son Kelly Housby, 52, acts as company president and chief executive.

Kevin Housby in April acknowledged “running outlaw” by driving himself to a videotaped meeting with Peddicord’s lawyers. He said he unknowingly failed to follow necessary steps to get his driver’s license restored following a 2007 drunken-driving case and had been driving illegally for more than two years.

Kelly Housby serves as secretary on the Board of Trustees for the Youth Homes of Mid-America, a private social service agency formally known as the YMCA Boys Home of Iowa.

Peddicord, a former producer for the Oprah Winfrey television show, moved to Iowa roughly six years ago in search of a “less hectic” life. After stints at Wells Fargo Home Mortgage and a West Des Moines advertising firm, she was hired in November 2006 to handle marketing for the Housbys. She lasted until the summer of 2008.

Court papers, depositions and documents based on Peddicord’s notes describe a macho workplace that turned nastier after Peddicord told an outsider about the environment at Housby Mack.

The lawsuit, filed a few months after Peddicord was fired in August 2008, accuses both Kevin and Kelly Housby of sexual harassment and Kevin Housby of assault and battery related to numerous episodes of “kissing, petting and hugging plaintiff.”

Documents accuse Kelly Housby of asking Peddicord to model his wife’s bikini and of introducing Peddicord to acquaintances on a Las Vegas business trip as his “date for the night.” Papers describe both Kelly and Kevin Housby as keenly interested in the appearance of female job candidates, and include one instance where Kelly Housby allegedly forbade Peddicord from hiring “the old lady.”

According to Peddicord, it was Kevin Housby who licked her office window, left open beers on her desk and spoke fondly of what he called Peddicord’s “sex-me-up jeans.” Documents describe one business gathering, celebrating another woman’s 10th anniversary with Housby Mack, where “Kevin Housby introduced her to the entire room as the woman with the largest breasts in the company.”

Kelly Housby in April said he couldn’t remember ever having one of his wife’s swimsuits in his office. Kevin Housby denied the window licking and downplayed most of Peddicord’s other complaints as cultural misunderstandings.

“Our work environment, we’re really blue collar,” Kevin Housby said. “We are mechanics, and we are welders, and we are – we’re an ugly industry. And initially, I had concerns about her adaptation to that blue-collar world.”

Kevin Housby later in the deposition voiced disappointment that Peddicord, “a so-so employee” promoted four months before her departure, hadn’t traveled to enough auctions to get a proper feel for the Vocon business.

Peddicord’s legal documents describe a tipping point in her harassment that occurred shortly after another employee, Jamie Thompson, was let go. Hired in October 2007 to serve as Kevin Housby’s personal assistant, Thompson told him two weeks later that she was pregnant. According to Thompson’s now-settled lawsuit, Kevin Housby responded by saying, “I told them not to hire a fat girl.”

Documents say the Housbys, concerned about a pregnant woman’s ability to travel to auctions, initially moved Thompson to a receptionist job. She eventually was fired in early 2008 for what the company described as bungled travel arrangements and other competency issues.

Court papers say an insurance company lawyer, hired to defend the Housbys in court, pressed Peddicord the following spring for details on the nature of the dealership’s working environment. The lawyer later reported to Kevin Housby that several new lawsuits were likely and that the company would need to spend thousands of dollars to update its employment handbook.

According to court papers, “Kevin Housby angrily confronted (Peddicord) … and yelled ‘That’s it! It’s not going to be any fun working here anymore – if this is the way you want it to be – you just watch – it will be all work and not fun!’ ”

Kelly Housby four months ago said his brother’s comments were made “in jest.”

Kelly Housby reiterated to Peddicord’s lawyers that she was fired solely for financial reasons – at least as far as he was concerned: “For me it was a financial-based reason, and maybe for Kevin it was something different in his mind.”

Kevin Housby told attorneys that he simply was “disappointed that we had to invest more money and do all this. I was disappointed that the office as we know it might change, but that’s the way it is.”


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