In a case alleging sexual harassment by a researcher against a research assistant, the trial court ordered more than $300,000 in attorneys’ fees after the jury awarded a mere $1 in damages to the plaintiff. Jenkins v. The University of Minnesota et al., No. 13-CV-1548 (D. Minn. Oct. 13, 2017). The court awarded attorneys’ fees because it found that nonmonetary considerations significantly affected the case.
The plaintiff, Stephanie Jenkins alleged that the researcher, Ted Swem, sexually harassed her over the course of two 17-day field research trips in a remote area of Alaska, during the period between the research trips, and while working together at the University of Minnesota. She claimed that Swem photographed her buttocks when she was not looking, proposed they bring only one tent for the research trip, suggested she bathe in the river with him, and described what he imagined kissing her would be like.
As originally pled, the complaint contained nine counts against the University and various individual defendants. By the time of trial, only four causes of action remained: hostile work environment against the University, hostile work environment against Swem, intentional infliction of emotional distress against Swem, and assault against Swem. At the conclusion of trial, the court dismissed the assault claim and the jury rejected all but one claim. The jury found Swem liable for hostile work environment and awarded $1 in damages to the plaintiff. (The Special Verdict Form instructed the jury to write in $1 if they found the plaintiff’s damages had no monetary value.)
Against this backdrop, Swem argued that the plaintiff’s victory was merely “technical” and awarding attorneys’ fees would be unreasonable.
The court, summarizing case law, stated, “When a plaintiff recovers only nominal damages because of his failure to prove an essential element of his claim for monetary relief, the only reasonable fee is usually no fee at all.” However, the court noted that “[p]reventing sexual harassment to enable broad participation of all genders in the workforce is an important public goal.” It also noted that case law states, “Regardless of the form of relief he [or she] actually obtains, a successful civil rights plaintiff often secures important social benefits that are not reflected in nominal or relatively small damages awards.” Essentially, the court suggested that regardless of nominal damages, the plaintiff advanced a social goal in establishing Swem’s conduct was impermissible. Thus, attorneys’ fees were warranted, the court concluded, and awarded approximately $305,000 in attorneys’ fees to the plaintiff.
This case highlights the importance of attorneys’ fees when assessing risk in a case. Although the $1 damages verdict suggests the defendants had a relatively strong case, the court gave great weight to other nonmonetary considerations that significantly affected the overall result.