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A San Diego jury awarded $30 million in punitive damages Friday to six female supermarket workers who accused their employer of sexual harassment. The award is believed to be among the largest ever for a harassment case in the United States, and is the latest development in a six-year case involving the Compton, Calif.-based supermarket chain Ralph’s Grocery Co. It’s also the latest big-ticket victory for San Francisco plaintiffs’ attorney Philip Kay. In 1994 Kay gained national prominence when he won a $7.2 million verdict (later reduced to $3.7 million) in a sexual harassment suit against law firm Baker & McKenzie and one of its partners. Kay described Friday’s verdict as a victory for working-class women. “I hope that places like Ralph’s, that have women like this working to support their families, that they’ll afford them the same type of dignity and respect that anybody should have at a workplace,” Kay said. Each of the six plaintiffs was awarded $5 million in punitive damages, in addition to $550,000 for emotional distress to be split among the six. Several employment attorneys said the award was among the highest for a sexual harassment case that they were aware of, though they couldn’t confirm that it was the highest ever. “Regardless of whether it’s the largest ever,” said Fenwick & West employment attorney Victor Schachter, “it’s certainly a sobering message to all employers that a failure to provide an environment free of sexual harassment can be extremely costly.” The case involved the conduct of a Ralph’s store director who routinely harassed female employees over the course of a decade. According to the suit, Roger Misiolek physically and verbally abused six female Ralph’s employees by calling them vulgar names, manhandling them, and throwing items like telephones, clipboards and, in one instance, a 30- to 40-pound mailbag, at them. Despite numerous complaints by the harassed employees, Ralph’s neglected to investigate, document or remedy the situation, the women alleged. “They knew it was happening but chose not to take any effective action,” said Kay. “All they would do was transfer the victims away” to different stores. Attorneys from Los Angeles-based Ballard, Rosenberg, Golper & Savitt, which represented Ralph’s, did not return calls for comment. According to Kay, the defense counsel has already indicated that it will appeal the decision. Friday’s verdict was the second in the case. In 1998, a jury found Ralph’s liable for gender harassment, failure to prevent gender harassment and malice or oppression based on its conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others. The jury awarded the six plaintiffs $550,000 in compensatory damages and $3.325 million in punitive damages. But because one of the jurors turned out to be a shareholder of Ralph’s parent company and disputed an expert witness’s assessment of Ralph’s net worth, the judge ordered a new trial on grounds of juror misconduct. The new trial was to determine punitive damages only. According to Kay, the defense subsequently offered to settle the entire case for $2.2 million. “I’m glad we didn’t accept,” said Kay. “We beat their offer.” “When a jury has a multimillion-dollar verdict like this it is trying to send a strong message that whatever happened is unacceptable and needs to be changed immediately,” said Oakland, Calif., employment attorney Thomas Klein. Indeed, one juror believed that the monetary award wasn’t high enough in Gober v. Ralph’s Grocery, N72142. Ralph’s should have been penalized at least 1 percent of their $3.7 billion net worth, said jury foreman John Adair. “We barely came over one-tenth of 1 percent.” Kay would not say how much of the $30.6 million verdict would flow in his direction. But he noted that under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, the prevailing party is entitled to pursue all attorney fees in a post-trial motion. He estimated that these fees are probably in excess of $5 million.

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