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Mississippi woman wins sexual harassment case: Jury says Strom Engineering owes Fields $140K

MINNEAPOLIS -- A Mississippi woman who worked at an American Crystal Sugar Co. plant during a labor dispute won nearly $140,000 in damages through a sexual harassment lawsuit last week.

In a divided verdict, six of seven jury members voted to award Terra Fields $136,781 in damages for lost wages and emotional distress, finding she was the victim of sexual harassment by a Strom Engineering Corporation supervisor.

The case was filed in Hennepin County, where Strom Engineering, the defendant, has its headquarters in Minnetonka. The trial began with opening statements on May 20 and ended May 27, when the jury delivered its verdict about 3 p.m. after deliberating for slightly more than six hours.

The win came more than three years after Fields filed a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in late 2011, which was eventually dismissed for lack of evidence.

Fields was assigned to work as a janitor at American Crystal's Crookston processing plant in August 2011, when most of the company's 1,300 unionized workers voted down the company's contract proposal, thereby kicking off a 20-month lockout. During that time, American Crystal contracted with Strom Engineering, with which Fields had been employed for 11 years, to provide a temporary workforce.

In the lawsuit, Fields accused Harry Avila, her Strom Engineering supervisor, of sexually harassing her on three different occasions by asking her out on dates, asking her to move in to his hotel room and making comments about her breasts, despite her rebuffs, according to the court documents.

On the third occasion, Avila asked her out, and Fields declined. That night, Avila saw Fields eating dinner with a male co-worker, court records say. The next day, by Fields' account, she was fired by Avila for "socializing too much," according to court records.

Strom Engineering denied the allegations, arguing that Avila had nothing to do with Fields' dismissal and that it was an American Crystal supervisor who decided Fields should be fired because of her poor work performance, court documents say.

"We were disappointed with the verdict and are considering all of our options," said Debra Weiss, the Minneapolis-based attorney representing Strom Engineering.

She said Strom Engineering did not want to comment on the case other than to say that it is considering its options for appeal, including asking for a new trial.

One of Strom Engineering's witnesses at trial was Gary Garcia, the American Crystal supervisor. Garcia is quoted in court records as having described Fields as a "slow" and "unmotivated" worker. He said he had discussed Field's work performance with her.

But Fields denied ever having been told of problems with her work performance.

Daniel Leland, an attorney with a Minneapolis-based law firm that specializes in employment law and represented Fields, said there was no written documentation to support Garcia's version of events.

Nor was there much documentation, Leland conceded, to back up Fields' version of what happened.

"It wasn't a case involving a whole lot of documents," Leland said. "It was really about a jury listening to people and hearing them tell their story and then making a decision on who seemed credible based on their testimony."

In the end, the jury sided with Fields.

Fields was awarded nearly $46,000 compensation for lost wages and emotional distress. The remaining $91,000 was for "treble damages." Under the trebling provision of the Minnesota Human Rights Act, a jury is allowed to multiply a plaintiff's damages by up to three times.

Leland said the purpose of the trebling provision is to encourage victims of discrimination to bring their cases forward and see them through. It also encourages attorneys to take on their cases.

Matthew Frank, another attorney with the Minneapolis-based firm that represented Fields, said the trebling provision promotes compliance with and enforcement of human rights laws.

"The trebling provision gives both prospective plaintiffs and the attorneys who represent them an incentive to take what otherwise might be very low-value cases and to try to enforce the law anyway," he said.

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