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Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co.

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Photograph of St. Louis County Courthouse and Duluth City Hall

St. Louis County Courthouse and Duluth City Hall, where the first damages hearing related to Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co. was tried in 1993. Photograph by Flickr user Tony Webster, December 29, 2016. CC BY-NC 2.0.

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.

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 Rubinstein. After hearing the women’s similar experiences, Rubinstein 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, Rubinstein 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.

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Hemphill, Stephanie. “Movie Stirs Memories on Iron Range.” Minnesota Public Radio, January 28, 2005.
http://news.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/2005/01/28_hemphills_rangefilm/

“Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co., 824 F. Supp. 847 (D. Minn. 1993).” Justia.
https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/FSupp/824/847/1460561/

Lara, Alison Neumer. “A Case That Changed the Culture.” Chicago Tribune, November 2, 2005.
http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2005-11-02/features/0511020328_1_sexual-harassment-lois-jenson-court-nominee-clarence-thomas

“Real Women of ‘North Country.’” National Women’s History Museum, May 6, 2006.
https://www.nwhm.org/articles/real-women-north-country

United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. Opinion No. 97-1147.
http://media.ca8.uscourts.gov/opndir/97/12/971147P.pdf

Winter, Catherine, and Stephanie Hemphill. “No Place for a Woman.” American RadioWorks, undated.
http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/ironrange/c1.html

Related Images

Photograph of St. Louis County Courthouse and Duluth City Hall
Photograph of St. Louis County Courthouse and Duluth City Hall
Photograph of Minnesota judges, including Patrick J. McNulty
Photograph of Minnesota judges, including Patrick J. McNulty
Bird's-eye view photograph of Eveleth
Bird's-eye view photograph of Eveleth

Turning Point

On December 5, 1997, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals rejects Judge McNulty’s ruling. In their decision, the court's judges criticize the lawyers for the trial’s drawn-out and invasive process

Chronology

1975

Lois Jenson, Priscilla Robich, Connie Saari, and Marcella Nelson begin working at Eveleth Taconite mine.

1983

A senior engineer at the mine begins sending Jenson a relentless string of romantically suggestive letters. Jenson files a complaint, but the mine does little to handle the situation.

1984

Jenson files a grievance with the mine’s union and submits a complaint to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.

1987

The state requests that Oglebay Norton Co., a co-owner of the mine, pay $6,000 in punitive damages, award $5,000 to Jenson for mental anguish, and adopt a sexual harassment policy. They agree to adopt the policy but refuse to make the payments.

1988

Paul Sprenger, Jenson’s lawyer, files a class-action sexual harassment lawsuit on behalf of Jenson and other women working for the mining company.

1991

Judge James M. Rosenbaum rules to certify the women’s class but rejects a requested injunction mandating the enactment of a sexual harassment policy at the mine.

1993

Judge Richard Kyle rules that Oglebay Norton Co. is liable for maintaining a hostile and discriminatory work environment.

1994

Lead plaintiff Pat Kosmach dies after five years of deteriorating health due to ALS.

1995

Special Master Patrick J. McNulty hears the trial determining each plaintiff’s monetary damages. He awards the women relatively low sums.

1997

The women appeal the ruling and it is reversed on December 5 by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. A new jury trial is ordered.

1998

Just before the trial is scheduled to begin, the remaining fifteen women settle with Oglebay Norton Co. for a total of $3.5 million.