Brokerage firm CB Richard Ellis is fighting a sexual harassment lawsuit that, if certified as a class-action case, has the potential to include as many as 9,000 former and current CBRE employees seeking unspecified punitive and compensatory damages from the firm. With 14,000 employees worldwide and $83 billion in investment sales and leasing transactions completed in 2003, CBRE is the largest real estate brokerage in the U.S.
Former CBRE marketing director Amy Wiginton, who worked in the firm's Oak Brook, Ill., office, filed the federal lawsuit in 2002. Wiginton claimed that she was subjected to lewd remarks, unwanted groping and sexual propositions by male co-workers from 1997 until late 2001. Four other women who worked at CBRE offices in St. Louis, Phoenix, Sacramento and Beverly Hills, Calif., have added their names to the lawsuit. The plaintiffs contend that CBRE management ignored the problem.
On Sept. 2 of this year, CBRE attorneys filed a motion to have the case dismissed, but Judge Martin Ashman of the Northern District Court of Illinois ruled that CBRE's motion for summary judgment was premature. The lawsuit now is in the hands of the judge who will decide early next year whether the case warrants class-action status.
“CB Richard Ellis created a frat-house culture and then failed to do anything about it,” says attorney Elizabeth Hartweg of Hagens Berman LLP, the Chicago-based law firm representing the plaintiffs.
The intent of the lawsuit is to force the company to fix a widespread problem, according to Hartweg. “A lot of the women who work at CB Richard Ellis are scared that they will lose their jobs,” she says. “The plaintiffs want CB Richard Ellis to be a better place to work.”
Journalist Susan Antilla, author of “Tales from the Boom-Boom Room,” an account of sexual harassment and discrimination against women on Wall Street in the 1990s, says women are reluctant to file these claims. “The company has all the resources, and the litigation process is debilitating,” she says.
But CBRE maintains that the alleged incidents are false or distorted, says Brenda Feis, an attorney with Chicago law firm Seyfarth Shaw, which is representing the brokerage firm. According to Feis, Wiginton readily initiated or participated in many of the ribald dialogues that she now claims were objectionable.
“There is simply no evidence to support these five claims,” says Feis. “And, when you consider how large a company this is, and how few women came forward, there just isn't enough evidence as a matter of law to support a class action.”
CBRE denies that it has ever taken sexual harassment protocols lightly. In September 2000, CBRE founded an internal network for female employees. The purpose of the network, according to the CBRE Web site, is to “foster an environment where women and men have an equal opportunity to succeed.” What's more, CBRE also claims that beginning in 1997 the firm instituted a national training program on sexual harassment conducted by an in-house attorney.
Class-action lawsuits can prove to be costly for defendants, if they are found guilty. In July, for example, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Morgan Stanley announced a massive $54 million settlement over a sexual harassment lawsuit.
“The only thing you know for certain is that once it's certified as a class action, the stakes go up for everyone,” says Matthew Hoffman, a partner with New York-based Todtman, Nachamie, Spizz & Johns, which focuses on employment law. “That guarantees that if there are any financial penalties, they will be far greater than before.”