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The sexual harassment class-action started at a Minnesota mine that helped set national precedent

Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co. became the first sexual harassment class action tried in US federal court.

Lois Jenson and her coworkers Patricia S. Kosmach and Kathleen Anderson filed the lawsuit Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co. in 1988, after years of harassment at Eveleth Mines. The case became the first sexual harassment class action tried in US federal court and set a precedent for future harassment trials.

In 1975, Lois Jenson became one of the first women employees at Eveleth Mines Forbes Fairlane Plant. Jenson, a single mother, applied because the job paid $5.50 an hour and offered insurance.

Male miners saw the women as a threat. They looked at Jenson “like they’d never seen a woman before.” On her second day, a miner told Jenson, “You … women don’t belong here. If you knew what was good for you, you’d go home, where you belong.” Others subjected the women to unsolicited touching, grabbing, and kissing. Some women were threatened and stalked. Men drew pornographic cartoons on the walls and decorated workspaces with pin-ups.

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In 1983, a senior engineer sent Jenson a relentless series of suggestive letters. Although she filed a complaint, the mine did little to respond. Jenson had had enough. In 1984, she filed a union grievance and submitted a complaint to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.

In 1987, the state asked Oglebay Norton Company, the mine’s management, to pay $6,000 in punitive damages and $5,000 to Jenson for mental anguish in addition to adopting a sexual harassment policy. When Oglebay Norton agreed to adopt the policy but refused to pay damages, the case moved to the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office and was given to Helen Rubenstein. After hearing the women’s similar experiences, Rubenstein agreed to bring the case as a class action, something that had never been done.

Rubenstein had to find women to join Jenson. Though many feared workplace retaliation, Lois found a partner in senior union member Pat Kosmach. Ten months after taking the case, however, Rubenstein became overwhelmed, and Jenson and Kosmach chose Sprenger & Associates (later Sprenger & Lang) to replace her. Paul Sprenger—the only attorney interested in bringing the case as a class action—assigned Jean Boler to the case.

On August 15, 1988, Sprenger filed a suit on behalf of Jenson, Kosmach, and a third woman, Kathy Anderson, in the US District Court’s Minnesota district. The filing, Lois E. Jenson and Patricia S. Kosmach v. Eveleth Taconite Co., aimed to certify the case as a class action and obtain an injunction forcing the mine to adopt a sexual harassment policy. Federal District Court Judge James M. Rosenbaum heard the trial, which began on May 13, 1991, in Duluth. In December, he granted class certification but denied the injunction.

The remainder of the trial proceeded in two phases. First, a public hearing was held to determine whether Oglebay Norton was liable for maintaining a discriminatory work environment, began on December 17, 1992, before District Judge Richard Kyle. By then, fourteen other women had joined the class. On May 14, 1993, Kyle ruled that Oglebay Norton was liable. He issued the previously denied injunction and ordered the mine to educate employees about sexual harassment and address complaints.

Second, a private hearing was held to determine monetary damages. Kyle allowed it to be tried before a special master, appointing retired federal magistrate Judge Patrick J. McNulty.

The hearing’s discovery process was brutal. The women had led tough lives, and the mine’s lawyers explored painful personal details during depositions that probed into the women’s sexual histories and childhoods. Jenson and some of the other plaintiffs had developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from their experiences. Kosmach, who had been diagnosed with ALS in January 1989, died on November 7, 1994, two months before the trial began.

On March 28, 1996, McNulty awarded between $2,500 and $25,000 to each woman. Alarmed by errors they claimed McNulty had committed during the closed hearing, Sprenger and Boler appealed to Kyle. When he refused to act, they appealed to the Eighth Circuit, which rejected McNulty’s ruling and criticized the trial’s drawn-out process.

The women and their lawyers prepared for another damages trial, but on December 31, 1998, weeks before the trial’s scheduled start date, the women settled with Oglebay Norton. Exact awards were not disclosed, but they rivaled the damages of other harassment suits.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.