Sex Harassment Damages Against Law Firm Upheld
The California Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld a $3.5-million punitive damages verdict against Baker & McKenzie, the world’s largest law firm, in a sexual harassment case brought by a former secretary.
The court, meeting in closed session, refused to review the 1994 jury award to Rena Weeks, who said a former partner at the law firm groped her, lunged at her and made sexually suggestive remarks. Lawyers in the case said the award is the largest ever handed down in a sexual harassment case in the United States.
The court upheld the verdict without dissent. Justice Marvin R. Baxter did not participate in the deliberations.
A San Francisco jury in 1994 decided that the firm should pay Weeks $6.9 million in punitive damages for failing to have stopped former law partner Martin Greenstein’s conduct. The trial judge reduced the award to $3.5 million, but the law firm appealed, arguing that the amount was still excessive.
“On a reprehensibility scale, this one just doesn’t register very high and it sure doesn’t register $3.5 million worth,” said Jerome B. Falk Jr., a lawyer for Baker & McKenzie. The firm had argued, unsuccessfully, that the verdict be cut to no more than $500,000.
Falk said the firm has not yet decided whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
During the trial, Weeks testified that Greenstein once pulled back her arms to see which of her breasts was bigger. Other women also testified that Greenstein had sexually harassed them, and they complained that the firm did not intervene to protect female employees.
In addition to the punitive damages against the firm, the jury ordered Greenstein to pay Weeks $225,000 in punitive damages and the firm to pay her $50,000 for emotional distress.
After the trial, jurors said they had considered the law firm’s power and wealth when assessing damages. In the prior year, the firm had gross revenues of $512 million. Jurors also said the lawyers at the firm seemed arrogant and dishonest.
Greenstein earned $550,000 a year until he was forced out of Baker & McKenzie after 22 years. He denied Weeks’ charges and described her as an incompetent secretary.