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Ralphs Fights Record Award Over Sexual Harassment

Workplace: $3.9-million verdict went to six women who alleged that an Escondido store manager targeted them.

July 23, 1998|DAVAN MAHARAJ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Attorneys for Ralphs Grocery Co. will ask a San Diego judge today to quash a $3.9-million verdict that, if it stands, would be the largest ever sexual harassment award in California.

A jury in Vista in Northern San Diego County hit Ralphs with the multimillion-dollar award last month after finding that the supermarket chain had failed to prevent a manager from harassing six female employees at its Escondido store.

The women, who still work there, claimed that store manager Roger Misiolek groped them, pelted them with objects and subjected them to outbursts of profanity during a nine-month period.

The two-month trial, which ended June 1, dealt squarely with an employer's liability for sexual harassment in the workplace, an issue recently addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a pair of decisions handed down June 26, high court justices ruled that employers could be held liable, if, among other things, they failed to conduct an adequate investigation into allegations of sexual harassment.

Even before those rulings, California law required employers to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment.

In the Ralphs case, jurors unanimously found that company management failed to respond properly to Misiolek's alleged misconduct and acted with "conscious disregard to the rights and safety" of the women.

Company officials declined to comment to The Times. Ralphs' representative in court, San Francisco attorney Bonnie Glatzer, consistently argued that the company responded promptly when one of the plaintiffs, bookkeeper Diane Gober, complained that Misiolek slammed her into a chair. The company transferred Misiolek to an Orange County store and eventually demoted him, Glatzer told the court.

Misiolek, who testified during the trial, denied any wrongdoing.

Glatzer is demanding a new trial, alleging, among other things, that three female jurors failed to disclose during jury selection that they were victims of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Those jurors voted with others to award the plaintiffs $550,000 for emotional distress and $3.3 million in punitive damages. The six female employees, who hold various positions at the store, were awarded payments ranging from $200,000 to $1.5 million.

If the verdict is upheld, it will be the largest sexual harassment award in California, according to Todd Wolfe, research director of Trial Digest Publishing, an Oakland firm that tracks jury awards.

The women's attorney, Philip Edward Kay of San Francisco, also represented former law clerk Rena Weeks, who won a $7-million sexual harassment award against her former employer, Baker & McKenzie, in 1994. That verdict was subsequently slashed to $3.8 million but until now has stood as the largest award in a California sexual harassment case.

Kay said the case against Ralphs "is a classic example where the company is getting one complaint after another about a harasser and chooses to ignore it.

"It shows a lack of concern for the civil rights of their lower-level employees," he said.

Kay also has filed a motion for a new trial. He said jurors would have voted for higher punitive damages if San Diego County Superior Court Judge Joan Weber had allowed testimony that Misiolek had been hostile to seven female employees at other stores where he has worked.

Ralphs management, Kay said, knew of Misiolek's hostility toward women yet did nothing, Kay said.

"We feel we could get a much higher award if jurors are told exactly how much senior management knew," he said.

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