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Settlement reached in sexual harassment case against Fall River seafood plant

From left to right: Margarita Fuentes Herrera, Mirna Pacaja Batz, and Paula De Leon Carrillo are three plaintiffs in a sexual harassment lawsuit against a Fall River seafood-processing plant.
From left to right: Margarita Fuentes Herrera, Mirna Pacaja Batz, and Paula De Leon Carrillo are three plaintiffs in a sexual harassment lawsuit against a Fall River seafood-processing plant.(Debee Tlumacki/Globe Staff)

Margarita Fuentes Herrera was sexually harassed starting her first week packing shellfish at Atlantic Capes Fisheries in Fall River, she said through a translator, when a supervisor approached her from behind, put his hands on her body, and told her in Spanish, “If you want to work here, you will have to let me do what I want.”

More than five years after the alleged workplace misconduct against Fuentes Herrera and several co-workers began, a federal judge on Wednesday approved a $675,000 settlement in a federal lawsuit against Atlantic Capes and BJ’s Service Co., a New Bedford staffing firm. Each will each provide half that sum.

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Workers’ rights advocates hailed the settlement as a sign that the #MeToo movement can extend beyond Hollywood and executive boardrooms into factories, where they say women laboring for low wages — especially those who aren’t fluent in English — may be particularly vulnerable to harassment and assault.

“This is going to serve as a shining light for other women who are in similar situations . . . that they, too, can stand up and be supported,” Adrian Ventura, executive director of Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores in New Bedford, said in Spanish through a translator.

Executive Director of Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores, Adrian Ventura (left) met with Paula De Leon Carrillo, Mirna Pacaja Batz and Margarita Fuentes Herrera (from left to right).
Executive Director of Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores, Adrian Ventura (left) met with Paula De Leon Carrillo, Mirna Pacaja Batz and Margarita Fuentes Herrera (from left to right). (Debee Tlumacki/Globe Staff)

Atlantic Capes and BJ’s said in statements to the Globe that they have already begun efforts to improve working conditions. Under the terms of the settlement, they did not admit to wrongdoing.

Centro Comunitario helped the workers seek legal assistance through the Boston-based workers’ rights organization Justice at Work. That group brought their claims to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which filed the federal lawsuit.

US District Court Judge Patti B. Saris approved the settlement Wednesday. The parties were prepared to settle in December, but the case was shelved as the EEOC ceased operation during the federal government’s 35-day partial shutdown.

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The case involved four women with similar complaints of misconduct.

Mirna Pacaja Batz said the same supervisor who allegedly harassed Fuentes Herrera — a man nicknamed “El Gato” (Spanish for “The Cat”) — also rubbed his crotch against her buttocks while she packed shellfish. When she reported him to human resources at the Fall River seafood facility, managers did nothing, she said.

Paula de Leon Carrillo, who like the other workers was hired for Atlantic Capes by BJ’s, said “El Gato” put her hand on his crotch against her will. When she was expecting her daughter, he allegedly told her, “I like pregnant women, because the pregnant woman is juicier.”

The fourth woman alleging harassment was not available for an interview. The Globe is not naming her because it generally does not identify victims of sexual violence. The other three women asked to be named.

Fuentes Herrera, Pacaja Batz, and de Leon Carrillo will each receive $130,000, while the fourth plaintiff in the case will get $75,000.

Any other victims of alleged harassment who come forward will be compensated from a $210,000 fund set aside in the settlement.

Atlantic Capes said the issues at the Fall River packing plant predate the New Jersey-based company’s ownership of the facility, and most of its employees were temporary workers provide by BJ’s.

“When ACF acquired the Fall River facility in 2013, it immediately put in place equal opportunity, anti-discrimination, and anti-sexual harassment policies and practices,” Atlantic Capes said in a statement.

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Atlantic Capes said that when it eventually learned of the allegations, “the company immediately invited workers to come forward and share specific concerns and hired counsel to assist in investigating these complaints. The workers alleged to have behaved inappropriately are no longer employed by either ACF or BJ’s.”

The firm said it launched an effort to improve working conditions in Fall River before it learned of any allegations and stressed that no other employees have come forward with allegations.

Glen Ilacqua, general manager for BJ’s, said the company “is happy to have brought this matter amicably to a close and looks forward to implementing changes for the future so that it can continue to be a safe and healthy environment for its employees and temporary workers.”

“While we dispute some of the allegations in the case, we choose to focus on the upside opportunities that this settlement provides our company,” Ilacqua continued.

“As a result of this case, BJ’s has made significant improvements . . . which include investments in our internal staff training, the adoption of a leading electronic case management software platform, and retaining an outside agency to do our investigations and documentation for any future incidents.”

The women described their alleged harassment to the Globe in tearful interviews in December at Centro Comunitario’s offices. The experiences left lasting emotional scars, they said.

“It’s something that has marked the rest of my life,” Pacaja Batz said in Spanish. “It affected greatly my relationship with my husband, and it affected me psychologically.”

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Sara Smolik, a senior trial attorney with the EEOC who worked on the case, said its outcome shows employers that the EEOC will defend workers’ legal rights and lets employees know the agency will take them seriously if they come forward.

“It’s a sign to other employers of the commission’s seriousness in enforcing the statute,” Smolik said.

The settlement specifies that neither BJ’s nor Atlantic Capes will employ “El Gato,” and includes provisions that will allow the EEOC to bring the firms to court within weeks — instead of months or years — if either violates requirements against allowing a hostile work environment or fails to respond appropriately to any reports of harassment in the next four years.

What the settlement doesn’t say, though, is that either company did anything wrong.

The agreement states that its contents should not “be construed as an admission of liability on the part of either ACF or BJ’s, which have both denied the allegations.”

Fuentes Herrera, Pacaja Batz, and de Leon Carrillo said they are glad they came forward, despite their fears and the companies’ refusal to accept any blame for the harassment, and they feel a kinship with other women and men who have stood up to say, “Me, too.”

“I feel a connection, because what they suffered, I suffered in my own flesh,” de Leon Carrillo said. “I feel proud of them, and of myself. . . . I had the courage to lift my voice.”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.