Reversal of Fortune

DENOUNCING A federal magistrate's decision, a U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals judge last Friday ordered a new trial for the 16 female Minnesota miners who filed the nation's first class-action sexual-harassment suit. The suit, originally filed in 1988, accused Eveleth Mines of maintaining a hostile work environment that for years forced women workers to endure sexual innuendo, pornography, and physical assaults. Following a series of legal roadblocks, including several years the case spent languishing in the Minnesota Attorney General's Office, in 1993 a lower-court judge determined that the women were entitled to financial compensation from the company.

A couple of years later, the court assigned a semi-retired judge, Magistrate Patrick McNulty, to handle the damages portion of the trial. According to plaintiffs' attorney Jean Boler, the late magistrate (McNulty died last August) erred by allowing company attorneys to pry into the women's sexual histories, birth control methods, intimate relations, and finances. "The court had already said they were wronged," Boler recalls, "but [McNulty] forced them to go through [yet] another invasive procedure." McNulty awarded damages of only $2,500 to $25,000, amounts far below the $250,000 national average.

In Friday's opinion, Judge Donald Lay criticized McNulty's "erroneous application of legal principles," and took both the company and the judicial system to task for their "egregious" treatment of the women. Lay has ordered a new trial. And while she and her clients feel vindicated, Boler says that the victory is bittersweet. "It feels great," she says. "but it's hard to think about another trial. They've been through so much already."

 
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