Keep Our Families SafeSexual Harassment:  The case that changed America's workplaces

Lawsuits can make a difference.  When Lois Jenson went to work in 1975 for Eveleth Mines in Minnesota's Mesabi Iron Range, she wasn't looking to sue anybody.  She just wanted a steady, good-paying job to support herself and her son.  But after years of hearing degrading and disgusting profanity, seeing obscene pictures posted throughout her workplace, and experiencing unwanted touching and groping by male co-workers,  Lois turned to the civil justice system for help. Her story and landmark sexual harassment case, first chronicled in a book -- Class Action, by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler -- is now the inspiration for a major motion picture entitled North Country.  Jenson made it possible for other women to collectively challenge physically and emotionally hostile work environments.            It was not easy.  Lois called 50 lawyers before she found attorney Paul Sprenger.  According to Class Action, Sprenger asked Lois what she hoped to gain from the lawsuit.  She said her primary concern was to persuade the mining company to create a sexual harassment policy and an effective system for dealing with offenders.

"I want to make sure that other women who work in the mine do not have to go through what I went through," said Jenson.          

At the time he accepted the case, Sprenger had no idea that there would be no closure for his clients for another ten years.  It took three years alone just to get the case certified as a class action.           

In order to achieve class action status, Jenson's lawyers had to prove to a judge that the claims of the named plaintiffs (Jenson and two other women) were typical of the claims of the other women in the mine (the potential "class"); that there were enough affected women to make it more efficient to try the case as a class (rather than individually); and that their claims shared common questions of law -- in this case Title VII of the civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination against workers based on color, national origin, race, religion, or sex.

The judge's ruling in December 1991 -- just two months after Anita Hill testified she had been harassed by then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas -- was precedent setting.

"For the first time ever, companies that maintained hostile work environments could be liable for damages to an entire class of employees who had been exposed to that environment, rather than to just one individual at a time," wrote Bingham and Gansler.

The next phase of the trial -- to determine the liability of Eveleth Mines -- started in December 1992.  The judge issued his ruling in February 1993.

"It was a brave, forward-thinking opinion," said Jean Boler, one of Jenson's lawyers who was interviewed by Bingham and Gansler.  "[It was] an opinion that would affect how future cases were handled and ultimately, how companies treated, and allowed other employees to treat, their female workers."

The next phase of the trial -- to determine how each woman had been damaged and how much Eveleth Mines would have to compensate them -- was overturned in favor of Jenson and the other women by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit (the last stop before heading for the Supreme Court of the United States).

While the judge in the lower court made disparaging comments -- that Jenson's testimony had "a tendency to exaggerate, towards histrionics and dramatization and to skirt the whole truth," the Court of Appeals had a different view.

The opinion, issued in December 1997, started by acknowledging, "This case has a long, tortured and unfortunate history..."

It was true.  The women miners had not only endured a hostile work environment, but also a hostile courtroom experience.  The defense attorneys used every shred of evidence culled from each women's entire past -- from traumatizing childhood events, to unrelated medical and personal issues -- to discount their claims.

Only after the Eighth Circuit ruled in favor of a new trial for damages did the mining company settle the case.

Jenson's case made it possible for other women to challenge hostile work environments -- and win.  In 1996, 350 female employees prevailed against Mitsubishi; female stockbrokers won a class action against Merrill Lynch, which was found to have engaged in "systematic discrimination;" and female employees are now challenging Wal-Mart, alleging discrimination through denied promotions and unequal pay.      

Lawsuits can make a difference.  Sometimes it takes an extraordinarily long fight, but the outcome, as in Jenson's case, can change the future.