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The trouble started March 17, 1997, the day a Meriden, Conn., Record-Journal reporter noticed on-duty highway workers watching a video by TV “shock jock” Howard Stern, replete with casual references to genitalia. The reporter was visiting the city garage to do a story on a pothole-patching machine, but couldn’t help but overhear Stern’s blue streak. Members of the 30-man highway crew joked with the one woman in the office, clerk Donna Ericson. One said, “You’re blushing!” Another said, “You’re too old to blush.” Ericson had always been a good sport, a kind of den mother for the road crews. At the time, it didn’t seem like the kind of incident that would lead to a three-day federal trial and a jury award of $275,000 for gender-based discrimination and retaliation. But then one thing led to another. Ericson called the highway department director to warn about what the reporter had seen and, after an article appeared in the Record-Journal about the incident, the men started to shun her. “She was psychologically brutalized,” says Craig T. Dickinson, her lawyer, and an associate at Hartford, Conn.’s Madsen, Prestley & Parenteau. The road crew workers refused to talk to her, shielded their eyes with their hands to pretend not to see her, and said “something stinks” when she walked into a room, Dickinson said. It was a big change, because she had previously had a good relationship with the group. Ericson was in her late 50s, a divorced working mother the men liked, to the point of sometimes helping with outdoor chores at her home. Ill feelings grew, and the men moved the refrigerator and coffee machine from the break room to the garage, further isolating Ericson. She complained to supervisors and the city personnel department, which responded by ordering swimsuit posters and calendars removed from the walls. The crews got one-day suspensions, the supervisors three. TOUGH IT OUT In the trial before nine jurors, the city of Meriden was represented by city attorney Christopher P. Hankins, before U.S. District Judge Gerald L. Goettel, in Waterbury, Conn. The city took the view that it had responded to her complaints, and didn’t need to listen to more. Under the facts of her case, it was not easy to prove that Ericson had a valid gender discrimination claim, and that she’d made a reasonable complaint. At trial, Ericson produced a letter from human rights liaison Deborah Moore, who works in Meriden’s city personnel department, stating Moore’s investigation was concluded and she would not pursue Ericson’s persistent complaints about retaliation. A supervisor told Ericson he couldn’t make the men change their behavior, because he had to work with them, too. The city’s remedy was to offer her a job at City Hall, one of ten locations in the city where members of Ericson’s union were employed. A married man with whom she’d previously had an affair worked there, and she did not want that transfer. “This was another difficult part of the case,” said Dickinson. With that transfer in 1998, Ericson’s $10,000 in overtime shrank to nothing, her lawyer said. “They essentially took her overtime and gave it to someone else.” Dickinson conceded that Hankins made a strong case that Meriden was in the midst of a formal program to reduce jobs and overtime, but he said Ericson was the only employee whose overtime “was cut to zero.” Once the jury found a case of gender discrimination, it had less difficulty finding retaliation, deliberating for eight hours, and rendering their verdict September 20. City attorney Hankins said he plans to seek a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, but declined further comment.

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