Judge clears the way for jury trial in antibias case

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A federal judge has cleared the way for a jury trial in the case of Tyler Bonson, who claims he was fired from his job at Hanover Foods Corp. because his supervisors perceived him to be gay.

On April 1, in a 25-page ruling, U.S. Magistrate Judge Martin C. Carlson of the Middle District of Pennsylvania said Bonson has provided enough evidence of discrimination to allow the case to reach a jury. Attorneys for Hanover had asked Carlson to toss out the case as meritless.

From 2008-17, Bonson, 34, of Lewistown, was a freezer operator for the food company, which is located in Hanover, York County. He earned about $18.86 an hour, working 40 hours a week. He was fired in September 2017, after allegedly failing to show up for work. However, Bonson claims he was fired because he was perceived to be gay, according to court records. 

“Defendants discriminated against Bonson because he had good hygiene, combed his hair, and smelled good,” according to Bonson’s 11-page lawsuit.

The slurs allegedly hurled at Bonson by co-workers include “f-g,” “queer,” “freezer fairy,” and “gay boy.” One co-worker allegedly referred to Bonson’s car as “something a queer would drive.” Bonson, however, is heterosexual. He has a girlfriend and a child, according to his lawsuit.

In a deposition, Bonson said the workplace harassment occurred several times a week.  He said that while the harassment didn’t necessarily affect his work performance, it caused him to shelter himself while he was at work in an effort to avoid the people who were harassing him. Bonson also said that he felt he was denied promotional opportunities because of the way his supervisors treated him.  

The harassment was so pervasive that co-workers even asked Bonson’s mother, Lisa Bonson, about her “gay son.” Lisa Bonson works at Hanover as an inspector/cleaner.  Bonson complained about the alleged harassment to management, to no avail. according to court records.

Defendants terminated Bonson on Sept. 5, 2017, for allegedly failing to appear for work on Monday, Sept. 4, 2017, which was Labor Day. But Bonson claims he was told it was discretionary as to whether he should report for work on the holiday. 

Bonson established a plausible case that “he was discriminated against and called names associated with homosexuality because of the way he dressed, smelled, and kept himself in comparison to his coworkers and supervisors, mannerisms which did not conform to gender stereotypes,” according to Carlson’s ruling.

Carlson said a jury should decide whether Bonson was discriminated against because of his sex, which is prohibited by federal and state antibias laws. Moreover, the judge said a jury should decide whether Bonson was retaliated against by management for complaining about unlawful discrimination.

Bonson is seeking an unspecified amount in damages and reasonable attorney fees. A date for the jury trial hadn’t been scheduled, as of presstime.

Neither side had a comment for this story.

Justin F. Robinette, a local civil-rights attorney, praised Carlson’s ruling. “Judge Carlson’s ruling advances the rights of LGBT people in its own small way during a very important time,” Robinette said, in an email. “The ruling is confident that discrimination because you are perceived or assumed to be gay — when you aren’t — is protected.  The ruling implies that this will not be changed by the Supreme Court’s decision on the question of coverage for those who are openly LGBT, and recognizes that there is no other reasoned way to decide this question.”