Illinois jury awards $95 million in sex-harassment suit

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 10, 2011 5:33 PM
Illinois jury awards $95 million in sex-harassment suit

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A federal jury in Illinois has awarded $95 million to a woman who said she was the victim of a sexual harassment campaign that culminated when her boss allegedly threw her down on a couch and masturbated on her chest.

After nearly three days of deliberations, jurors in the Southern District of Illinois federal court concluded Wednesday that Ashley Alford, who worked in a branch of Aaron's Inc. -- a nationwide chain of rent-to-own furniture stores -- should receive $15 million in compensatory damages and $80 million in punitive damages.

David Ratner of Morelli Ratner, who represented Alford, said he believes the award is the largest ever in an individual sexual harassment case.

However, he said the judge will reduce the award on the federal claim because of statutory limits. All told, he said it's likely that at least $43 million will be collectible.

In a statement, Chad Strickland, vice president of associate resources for Aaron's, said the company vowed to appeal the verdict.

"Aaron's is extremely disappointed with the jury's verdict and believes that the award does not accurately reflect the evidence that was presented in this case," he said.

He added that the verdict was "the result of a decision made by a classic runaway jury" and was "confident that the damages will be greatly reduced."

"CAMPAIGN" OF HARASSMENT

Soon after Alford joined Aaron's as a sales representative in the fall of 2005, the male employees engaged in a "campaign" to harass the 20-year-old, Ratner said in an interview.

The store's general manager, Richard Moore, who was allegedly the main culprit, nicknamed Alford "Trixie," frequently told her how "cute" she looked, commented on the size of her breasts and groped her, Ratner said.

In September 2006, Alford was sitting on the floor of the stock room when Moore approached her from behind, "removed his penis from his pants and intentionally proceeded to hit Plaintiff on the top of her head with his penis," according to the complaint.

The following month, Moore pushed Alford down on a sofa in a back room, lifted her shirt and restrained her while he masturbated on her chest, the complaint says.

Alford sued Aaron's in 2008.

She claimed she called the company's sexual-harassment hotline, and left a message that went unreturned.

Ratner disputed Aaron's claim that this was a "runaway jury," saying it took nearly three days for the jury to come back with a verdict in Alford's favor.

"This wasn't a jury swayed by passion that came back in a hour," Ratner said.

Strickland said in a statement that Moore's alleged acts were inconsistent with "everything our Company believes in and stands for and outside the scope of Moore's employment."

Moore's attorney did not immediately return a call for comment.

The case is Alford v. Aaron's Rents, Inc., Southern District of Illinois, 3:08-cv-00683.

For Alford: David Ratner of Morelli Ratner

For Aaron's: Alisa Pittman Cleek of Ellarbee,Thomson, Sapp & Wilson

(Reporting by Noeleen Walder; Editing by Jerry Norton)