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Tyson Foods denies allegations that a woman was fired for reporting allegations of sexual harassment and assault.
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Tyson Foods denies allegations that a woman was fired for reporting allegations of sexual harassment and assault.

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Attorneys for Tyson Foods and three of its employees denied allegations in a lawsuit that a former worker was sexually harassed and assaulted and then fired in retaliation for reporting the alleged abuse. They said the worker was legitimately fired for repeatedly failing to show up for work.

The worker, who lives in Wilkes County, is seeking more than $5 million in compensatory and punitive damages. Harvey and Harold Kennedy, the attorneys representing the woman, filed the lawsuit on July 15 in Forsyth Superior Court. The lawsuit names as defendants Tyson Foods Inc., James R. Cooper III, Roosevelt Kelly and Christine Harris.

Harold Kennedy III declined to comment on Wednesday.

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.

The lawsuit alleged that Cooper repeatedly asked the woman to have sex with him, sometimes two to three times on the night shift. In October 2020, the woman was working her shift when Cooper came over and again sexually propositioned her. When she refused, he pulled his penis out, grabbed the woman’s hand and tried to force her to touch his penis, the lawsuit said. The lawsuit said Cooper was her manager but attorneys for Tyson Foods said he was not. Harris and Kelly also were not managers, according to the answer.

The lawsuit said Cooper yelled at her and that she later reported the sexual assault and sexual harassment to Harris, who was the plant’s human resources manager. Harris, the lawsuit said, retaliated against her, calling Kelly on the loudspeaker to come to her office. Kelly gave the woman a disciplinary write-up, even though Kelly was not her manager.

She was fired Oct. 28, 2020, and the lawsuit said Cooper and Kelly, described in the complaint as a manger in another department, were close friends. According to the lawsuit, both men verbally abused her. The lawsuit said after the woman was fired, 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.

The lawsuit said Cooper told his employees that “he expected every employee under his supervision to back him up on any company investigation.”

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Kevin J. Dalton and Kyle T. Watson, attorneys for the defendants, tell a completely different story in their written answer, which was filed Tuesday in Forsyth Superior Court.

According to the answer, Cooper, Kelly and Harris still work at Tyson Foods. Dalton and Watson said that the allegations that the woman made to Harris were different than the ones contained in the lawsuit. Dalton and Watson do not say how the allegations are different.

“Defendants deny Plaintiff’s allegation of retaliation,” they said. “Plaintiff was terminated from employment in October 2020 for legitimate reasons.”

The woman, according to Dalton and Watson, was written up on Oct. 9, 2020, because she left for break at 3 a.m. and failed to return to work when she was supposed to do so at 3:30 a.m. She also did not tell any manager where she was, Dalton and Watson said.

They allege that the woman often did not show up for work or was away from her work station without permission.

“During her employment, she regularly failed to clock in and out in an effort to conceal her attendance violations,” Dalton and Watson said in court papers.

They said the woman was given a warning on Oct. 9, 2020, that any further violations could result in disciplinary action, including termination. After that warning, the woman admitted she had violated policy and that Cooper had yelled at her in front of other employees.

Kelly wrote the woman up on Oct. 23, 2020, after seeing her violate the attendance policy, according to the answer. She was suspended pending termination.

The lawsuit said Tyson Foods Inc. had previously fired Cooper for sexual misconduct on the job with a female employee. The lawsuit said the company should never have hired Cooper back. Dalton and Watson do not address this specific allegation.

A date for a trial has not yet been set.

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@mhewlettWSJ

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