A former Tyson Foods worker has filed a complaint saying that a manager repeatedly asked her for sex, and when she refused, he sexually assaulted her. Then, when she complained about the sexual harassment and assault, officials at Tyson retaliated against her and fired her, the lawsuit alleges.
The worker, who lives in Wilkes County, is seeking more than $5 million in compensatory and punitive damages. The Winston-Salem Journal typically does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault. No criminal charges have been filed in the case. The lawsuit alleges battery, assault, intentional infliction of emotional distress, wrongful discharge from employment in violation of policy and several other claims.
Harvey and Harold Kennedy, the attorneys representing the woman, filed the lawsuit July 15 in Forsyth Superior Court. Named as defendants in the lawsuit are Tyson Foods Inc., James R. Cooper III of Winston-Salem, Roosevelt Kelly and Christine Harris. Kelly and Harris live in Wilkes County, according to the lawsuit.
Tyson Foods is one of the world’s largest food companies and has chicken-processing facilities in Wilkesboro, where it employs about 3,000 people.
Kelly Hellbusch, a spokeswoman for Tyson Foods, said in an email Monday afternoon that company officials do not comment on pending litigation. When reached Monday morning, Harris said, “I do not have any comment on that at this time.”
The Winston-Salem Journal called a phone number associated with Cooper’s address on Monday. Later that afternoon, Cooper called a Winston-Salem Journal reporter, confirming that he was the same Cooper who worked at Tyson’s Food. After learning about the allegations contained in the lawsuit, Cooper hung up without any comment. Cooper called from an anonymous number.
Efforts to contact Kelly were unsuccessful.
According to the lawsuit, the woman started working at Tyson Foods Inc. in December 2018. She worked at the company’s Fresh Plant in Wilkesboro in a department known as the 28 Degree Room. Cooper was the department’s manager.
The lawsuit alleges that Cooper constantly asked the woman to have sex with him, sometimes two to three times on the night shift.
“His sexual propositioning of the Plaintiff occurred on the job inside of the company’s plant,” the lawsuit said. “Plaintiff rebuffed his sexual advances. She would turn and walk away from him, but he would follow her.”
In October 2020, the woman was working her shift when Cooper came over and asked her when she was going to have sex with him.
“Suddenly, he pulled his penis out of his pants and completely exposed himself to (the woman),” the lawsuit said. The complaint alleges that Cooper grabbed the woman’s right hand and tried to force her to touch his penis. The woman told him to stop and she jerked away. Then, the lawsuit said, she walked quickly away.
After that incident, the lawsuit said, Cooper began yelling at her and verbally abusing her on a daily basis.
The woman reported the sexual assault and sexual harassment to Harris, who was the plant’s human resources manager. Harris, the lawsuit said, retaliated against her. The lawsuit alleges that after the woman made her report, Harris called for Kelly on the loudspeaker to come to her office. Afterward, Kelly gave the woman a disciplinary write-up, even though Kelly was not her manager.
When the woman confronted Harris, the lawsuit said, Harris acknowledged that she had ordered Kelly to write the woman up.
The lawsuit alleges that Cooper and Kelly, a manager in another department, were close friends and that Kelly also verbally abused the woman. After the alleged sexual assault by Cooper, Kelly came to the 28 Degree Room to harass the woman, it said.
She was fired on Oct. 28, 2020, the lawsuit said.
After the firing, Cooper met with employees under his supervision and told everyone that the woman had filed a complaint against him for sexual harassment and sexual assault and that “he expected every employee under his supervision to back him up in any company investigation.”
“This was an implicit threat to every employee under his supervision that they could be fired if they did not back him up,” the lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit said Tyson Foods Inc. had previously fired Cooper for sexual misconduct on the job with a female employee. Because of this prior termination, the lawsuit argues that Cooper should never have been hired back at the company.
The lawsuit is seeking $5.35 million in compensatory and punitive damages. A trial date for the lawsuit has not been set.