Thursday, October 1, 2009

Courage in the Face of Victory and Defeat

I wish I could tell you that every one of my client's won in his or her struggles, but that just isn't the case. That is the hard part for my clients, and for me. There are no guarantees, there is no certainty. This would be hard enough, exposing one's innermost feelings to a group of strangers, even if one were assured that something positive would come at the end. But there are no assurances in law. I liken my job to being a professional gambler. Nothing's certain.

It is one of these uncertain cases which I want to talk about. I want to tell you of my wonderful client and the risks she took in one of my first sexual harassment cases tried to a jury. In fact it was the second one, and I was to try the third just one week later. It was in 1994, right after I returned from the Trial Lawyers College and my new friend from the college, Ken Goldberg, graciously agreed to try this hotly contested case with me. Jury trials in sexual harassment cases were new. The law had just changed. And this case was different than most.

My client was one of the strongest, bravest, most honest people I have ever known. She is one of my friends on Facebook to this day, so I hesitate to state her real name. I will change this if she reads this and wants me to reveal her identity, I will do so. Let's call her, Angela, because she is angelic.

Angela worked in a business that was male-dominated and performed a job usually done by men. She is beautiful and strong. She was happily married with four children and she was devoted to the Lord. As a woman, she was different than most of the men who performed the manual work. In fact, she was a member of a labor union. Most of the time, labor unions are godsends, but this local was not. The title of the union uses the word "brotherhood" and it truly was for brothers and not sisters.

Angela drove a truck and another truck driver repeatedly asked her out on dates. Angela politely told the man that she was happily married and not interested. He persisted, and started making sexual comments. Angela had enough and tried to file a union grievance to get him to stop. That's when the trouble started. The steward did not want to take her grievance, but Angela insisted. As a result of the grievance, the driver was fired by the company and appealed. The union steward, who was also Angela's union steward, started a campaign. As drivers came in, union members would have other members write down lies about Angela, that she used vulgar language, asked for sex, etc. This hurt Angela, who by then had started doing some preaching at a church. There was to be a hearing called a "Two State Hearing" where union and management members listen to evidence and decide the fate of the disciplined employee.

On the day of the hearing, Angela got in her car to drive up by the airport to testify. When she had driven about ten miles, her tires blew out. They had been slit. Luckily, Angela was safe and hitched a ride to the hearing where she testified. At the hearing, there was a stack of written nasty statements by union members who were friends of the harasser, most of whom could not even identify Angela by sight insinuating that Angela had asked for it. The driver got his job back.

Angela came to me and we filed a lawsuit for defamation and for sexual harassment against the Union. The company had done all they could, but their hands were tied by the grievance hearing. The union attorney was mad. Many times he threatened me on camera and said he would be filing a malicious prosecution action against me. The statute of limitations has run and I was never sued. The union offered nothing and we went to trial.

We tried the case in state court and it took two weeks. Angela is so honest and decent, the jury fell in love with her. Never before had she been defamed like this. Never before had anyone treated her so demeaningly and disrespectfully. Although she is a strong woman, she could not help but sob on the stand.

The jury awarded Angela $250,000 for emotional distress and $400,000 for punitive damages against the union. We had over $200,000 to be awarded in attorneys fees. The case made the front page of USA Today. Ironically, at the time of trial, the driver had been fired because he had sexually harassed (grabbed the breasts of) a customer and the union could not bail him out yet again where customers were involved.

The union appealed and for reasons I do not care to remember, ,the Court of Appeals reversed the judgment and did not grant us a new trial. Angela lost and that was that. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case. It was gut-wrenching.

At some time after that, I spoke at a lawyers seminar about sexual harassment cases, and Angela agreed to talk to the audience about her experience as a a plaintiff. She talked about how hard it was to have lawyers pry into her most private life, but she did it anyway because going forward was the right thing to do.

Since the trial, Angela was promoted to management at work. More importantly to her and her family, she founded a church. She preaches at her church to this day. Angela is one of the kindest, most caring people I know. I talk to her now and again. Even though we ultimately lost the case, my life was so enriched by representing a brave soul such as Angela. I am thankful for the experience. I hope that Angela was positively impacted by having the courage and fortitude to go forward and fight the good fight, regardless of the result.

No comments:

Post a Comment