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Art Imitates Life: The Story of Lois Jenson
“North Country,” a new movie in theaters across the country, chronicles the landmark sexual harassment lawsuit, Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co., filed in 1988 on behalf of Lois Jenson and other female mine workers subjected to insults, inappropriate touching, and physical intimidation at a mine in northern Minnesota.
Jenson (portrayed by Charlize Theron) and her lawyer Paul Sprenger (portrayed by Woody Harrelson) faced tough odds. The corporate defense team hired by Eveleth Mines brutally attacked the character of all 15 women in the suit. The judge in the first trial called the women “histrionic” and fell asleep at the bench.
After more than a decade of delay tactics, with a jury trial imminent, corporate executives at Eveleth finally agreed to settle the case. Jenson’s lawsuit was the first class action sexual harassment lawsuit in the U. S., and led to the passage of state and federal laws to protect workers. Today the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) uses similar legal actions to hold companies accountable.
A Timeline of Lois Jenson's Long-Term Struggle
1974 - The big steel companies and federal government reach an agreement to institute practices that would make up for the industry's past discrimination against women and minorities. Lois Jenson, a single mother, was lured to the mines by high wages, as were dozens of other women.
March 25, 1975 - Jenson started working at the Eveleth Taconite iron ore mines. From the beginning, Jenson and the other women working at the mines were subject to sexual harassment from some of their male colleagues. They endured verbal insults and threats, graffiti on the mine walls, groping, and physical intimidation, such as knocking over a portable toilet when a woman was inside. One woman even reported that a man soiled the clothing in her locker.
Jenson brought the issue to the attention of managers and union representatives, but no one made any attempt to stop the harassment. One employee started stalking her, but the company still would not intervene to protect her.
October 5, 1984 - Jenson mailed a complaint to the Minnesota Human Rights Department. Her tires were slashed in retaliation a week later.
January 1987 - The state of Minnesota ordered a part-owner of the mine, Ogelbay Norton Co., to pay Jenson $11,000 in damages. The company refused.
January 3, 1988 - Jenson hired Paul Sprenger as her attorney. In August of that year, Sprenger filed Lois E. Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co. in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis. At the time of the filing, he requested that the suit be classified as a class action.
December 16, 1991 - U.S. District Court Judge James Rosenbaum, having listened to the women’s accounts of sexual harassment and seen the statistical evidence that Eveleth had unfair hiring practices for women and denied advancement opportunities for those who were hired, granted the suit class action status.
It was the first time a sexual harassment lawsuit was certified as a class action.
December 17, 1992 - The liability phase of Jenson's trial began in St. Paul before Judge Richard Kyle.
May 14, 1993 - Judge Kyle ruled that Eveleth was liable for not preventing sexual harassment. He ordered the company to educate all employees on sexual harassment and create company-wide a policy that prohibits sexual harassment.
Summer of 1993 - Retired federal magistrate Patrick McNulty was appointed to oversee the punitive and compensatory damages trial. McNulty allowed Eveleth’s lawyers to obtain the women’s medical records dating back to birth and forced the plaintiffs to testify about very intimate details of their personal lives.
March 28, 1996 - McNulty delivered his report, in which he called the women “histrionic” and publicized personal details of their lives. The women appealed his decision.
In the appeal, the National Organization for Women filed an amicus brief on behalf of the plaintiffs, arguing that McNulty was clearly biased against women.
December 5, 1997 - The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned McNulty’s decision and ordered a new jury trial. In its decision, the court stated that:
It should be obvious that the callous pattern and practice of sexual harassment engaged in by Eveleth Mines inevitably destroyed the self-esteem of the working women exposed to it. The emotional harm, brought about by this record of human indecency, sought to destroy the human psyche as well as the human spirit of each plaintiff. The humiliation and degradation suffered by these women is irreparable. Although money damage cannot make these women whole or even begin to repair the injury done, it can serve to set a precedent that in the environment of the working place such hostility will not be tolerated.
December 30, 1998 - With a new jury trial about to begin, executives at Eveleth Taconite finally agree to a meaningful settlement with the fifteen women involved in the case.
As the first suit of its kind, Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co. paved the way for women across the country to stand up for their rights. Thanks to Jenson:
Used with permission from The Association of the American Trial Lawyers of America. All rights reserved.
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