IOWA CITY, Iowa » Employees at a U.S. Cellular store in Iowa routinely searched customers’ phones for naked pictures without their knowledge and eagerly showed them to colleagues when found, according to a former worker’s sexual harassment lawsuit.
Lisa Blazek, who worked as a retail consultant at a store in the northwest Iowa city of Spencer from 2007 to 2010, alleges the first thing employees did when customers brought in their phones for service was to scroll through their photos to "try and find naked or sexually explicit photos."
"If photos of that nature were found, they would show them throughout the store," Blazek wrote in a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, filed as part of an amended lawsuit in federal court last week. "Many times I would be called over to look at something only to find out that it was a sexual picture on a customer’s phone."
Blazek, 32, said she has been shown pictures of a woman masturbating, a man lying on a bed naked and "other pornographic materials" from customers’ phones.
Lawyers representing the company and four employees named in the lawsuit denied Blazek’s allegations in a court filing Thursday. A company spokesman didn’t immediately return messages seeking comment.
Blazek’s attorney, Stanley Munger of Sioux City, said he was unaware of any similar cases.
"Every allegation of sexual harassment is important, but I think this case is unique in its facts." he said.
The case was initially filed last year, but was amended last week to include more detailed allegations against one of the defendants.
In an unusual move, U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett told lawyers for both sides in November that he was using the dispute as a case study for an employment discrimination class he teaches at Drake University. With their consent, he sealed some key filings until the end of the class in June.
Blazek’s lawsuit said that being subjected to customers’ sexual photos was just one of many troubling aspects in a workplace where she said there was non-stop sexual harassment, which was then covered up by the company after she complained.
Blazek alleges two male co-workers frequently talked about their own sex lives and those of customers and asked her about her genitalia and sexual positions she favored. She also alleges that one told her to show him her breasts. After she complained to the store manager, she said he told her she’d have to deal with it since she was the one who was bothered, she claims, and also warned that his job would be in jeopardy if she complained to higher-ups.
She said her hours were changed so she wouldn’t have to work with the worst offender, but no one was disciplined.
In fact, she said the harassment got worse after she reported it. The lawsuit claims a company investigator falsely accused her of having a relationship with one of the harassers and attempted to coerce her into abandoning her allegations. Blazek says she was told she would have to relocate to another office to avoid harassment. She decided to quit instead after two years of problems.
"It got to the point where I could no longer handle going to work," Blazek wrote in the complaint. "It affected me physically, mentally and emotionally. It took over every aspect of my life."
Blazek is seeking to be compensated for lost pay and health benefits, suffering and emotional distress and additional punitive damages to deter similar conduct in the future.
Munger said Blazek, who is married and has two young sons, has gone back to school and does not have another job. He said believes he will be able to prove her claims at trial and declined comment on whether he believed similar practices went beyond the Spencer store.
"It’s going to be important for our society to try these claims. And, if they are found to be justified, to take that as a lesson as to how we need to conduct ourselves."