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— A decades-long grocery employee accused of giving unwanted hugs to customers in west Michigan has pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor.

Fred Civis of Whitehall appeared in court Friday. The 57-year-old was placed on probation and told to enroll in a behavioral program. He could have been sentenced to a $500 fine and 90 days in jail.

Civis told the Muskegon Chronicle he wanted to end the controversy, which divided this town of 2,700 people.

The supermarket clerk worked for 39 years at Plumb's Valu-Rite Foods in Whitehall, 55 miles northwest of Grand Rapids.

He was fired in August after complaints of unwanted touching by women, one of whom reported him to store management and the police.

But Civis had supporters who said he was merely friendly toward customers. They criticized Plumb's and set up a Facebook page.

"This is a terrible accusation," the fired cashier's wife, Marsha Civis, wrote in a Facebook message directed toward the complainant. "I hope you will grow up and just love people."

Plumb's says Civis repeatedly failed to follow store policy. Some customers said he made them uncomfortable, and that his hugs were invasive.

Civis had been warned several times about touching customers in ways they found too personal, said Jim Nader, Plumb's president and chief executive, told The Detroit News for a story published last week.

During a warning last year, Civis was told another incident could lead to his firing, Nader said. "We don't terminate someone for giving unwanted hugs," he told The News. "He just couldn't follow the policy."

Supporters of Civis launched a boycott that slowed business at the store. The growing anger also led to death threats against a woman wrongly believed to be the complainant against Civis.

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