A first sex-harassment case still awaits its finale

After winning a ground-breaking, sexual-harassment lawsuit against their employer, women miners fight for compensation.

Eveleth, Minn., doesn't seem like the kind of place that could foment a revolution.

A placid town of 4,000 on northern Minnesota's Mesabi Iron Range, it is a place where people greet each other by the first name in the Miners National Bank, where the strongest passions are reserved for hockey and hunting, and where nearly everyone works at the same place - Eveleth Mines, an erector-set of chutes and shafts on the outskirts of town.

Yet a lawsuit filed by a group of women miners 10 years ago has, in fact, helped launch a revolution in the burgeoning area of sexual-harassment law. It was the first in the nation to be certified as a class-action "hostile-work environment" suit - the forerunner of later high-profile legal actions like the sex-discrimination case against Mitsubishi Corp. in 1997.

Now, 23 years after the women of Eveleth Mines first complained of unfair treatment, the final phase of their case is reaching its denouement in a courtroom here - and will likely once again carry important symbolic implications.

While the women won their suit more than five years ago, damage awards in the case continue to be disputed. After the original verdict, a semi-retired judge acting as an arbiter concluded the women were "paranoid" and "puritanical." He awarded each $11,000 - far short of the average $250,000 in sexual-harassment cases.

This week, a federal jury in Minneapolis is reconsidering how much money each of the 15 women will get. Some analysts see it as an opportunity to correct a grave injustice. Others say the case has outlived its usefulness.

Either way, most agree that because of the case, courts will now be more careful about how they punish employers that ignore or condone a "hostile work environment."

"When you look at this case, it's obvious that our society hasn't figured out this [issue of sexual harassment] yet," says Laura Cooper, a labor-law professor at the University of Minnesota.

The roots of the dispute date back to the early 1970s, when bell bottoms were in style the first time, sexual harassment wasn't yet a legal issue, but another movement, feminism, was beginning to leave an imprint. At the time, two Eveleth women filed a discrimination suit against the owners of the local mine, and a court ordered them to hire at least four female workers.

One of them was Lois Jenson, who grew up on the Mesabi Range, a high plateau 60 miles northwest of the port city of Duluth, on Lake Superior.

For most of this century, mining the area's ore - much of it refined into taconite pellets and shipped through the Great Lakes - has sustained the region's economy. The dirt along the spruce-lined roads has a rusty tinge, a product of the iron-rich bedrock. Eveleth is a strictly blue-collar town, and gender roles among its denizens haven't relaxed much over the past 40 years.

Ms. Jenson, in fact, says her experience at the mine was traumatic from almost the day she arrived. Porn magazines, sexually explicit graffiti - often naming specific female employees - appeared around the plant.

After co-workers threatened the women with rape, Jenson says they began packing mace and knives in their lunchboxes. Their requests for help from the mine's management and local union were greeted with indifference or incredulity, she says.

The number of women complaining about harassment had grown to 21 - the majority of the company's female work force - and they decided to seek redress through the courts. It became the nation's first class-action "hostile work environment" suit. Previously, only individual women could make such claims.

A federal court in 1993 found Eveleth Mines was liable on sex-harassment claims and sex discrimination in job promotion. Patrick McNulty, a Duluth judge, determined damages. Five of the women settled with the company.

McNulty sided with the defense and the relatively low award he gave the women surprised legal experts.

His decision was successfully appealed in 1997 and a new trial for damages was ordered, leading to the case now being heard by a federal jury in Minneapolis.

This time, the scope of the defendant's investigations has been limited, preventing the "intrusive" questioning of the women that characterized the earlier trial, says their lawyer, Jean Boler.

The mining company's lawyer, Scott Herzog, declined to comment on the case, referring to a court-imposed gag order.

One of the original defendants settled this week with the mining company, now under different ownership than when the suit was first filed. That leaves 15 women still seeking redress.

While the case will be closely watched in the legal community, many people in Eveleth respond to it, at least on the surface, the way they do to the area's headstrong winters, with Nordic stoicism. The women's stories have received little attention in the local press.

Ask one of the locals about the lawsuit, and hesitation sets in. People "are aware of this," says James Forsman, a local accountant. But the town's general feeling about the case "depends on who you're talking to," he adds, declining to give his own opinion. At the Miners National Bank, an employee explains his company's position on the case is "neutral."

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