Some Women's Rights Advocates Question Big Harassment Award

Article excerpt

The record-setting $7.1 million sexual harassment penalty handed down by a jury last week was a boon for women's rights advocates and trial lawyers. But many of them are privately uneasy about the process that turned a former secretary into an instant millionaire.

Rena Weeks worked less than three months in the Palo Alto office of Baker & McKenzie, the world's largest law firm, and only 25 days for partner Martin Greenstein, who she says put M&M's down her front shirt pocket and touched her breast.

Legal observers do not dispute the seriousness of the accusations. But some - including those in women's groups - say California law should allow juries to give part of the award to nonprofit educational groups or the courts. Others, especially management attorneys, say the amount was simply too high.

Weeks was awarded $50,000 for the emotional distress she went through, generally considered a fair sum given her short term of employment. The punitive damages were more controversial: The jury ordered Greenstein to pay $225,000 and ordered Baker & McKenzie to pay $6.9 million.

"Where's the justice in that?" asked Michael Caples, a lawyer in San Francisco who represents employers in labor disputes.

Punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant and to discourage further offenses. But the Weeks case highlights a kink in the justice system - almost everyone agrees on the need for change, but almost no one can figure out quite how to do it. …

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