Two women who said they experienced for several years pervasive harassment at a St. Louis Mercedes-Benz dealership won a total of $1.81 million from a St. Louis jury.
“Obviously for them, it was a very emotional experience,” said Benjamin Westhoff of Sedey Harper Westhoff in St. Louis, an attorney for plaintiffs Denise Ligon and Dorothy Robinson. “They were very pleased to be vindicated in that way.”
Ligon and Robinson were longstanding salespersons with Tri-Star Imports. In their lawsuit, they alleged their sales manager yelled and screamed at them, physically intimidated them, referred to women as “bitches” and thwarted their sales opportunities, in contrast to far more favorable treatment for male employees.
Ligon, who is white, and Robinson, who is Black, also alleged that the manager treated Black customers differently than white customers by giving them less favorable financing deals and screening Black customers’ legal and socio-economic histories through Case.net and Facebook. The plaintiffs also said the manager brought a firearm to the workplace, in violation of company policy, because he was concerned about protestors in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson.
The plaintiffs alleged that they complained repeatedly to the owners of the dealership but didn’t get any results until they submitted a written complaint. Westhoff said a company attorney’s investigation revealed that the only other female salesperson reporting to the sales manager also shared serious concerns about his behavior towards women in the workplace. Nonetheless, Westhoff said, the attorney concluded that no harassment or discrimination occurred.
The plaintiffs resigned their positions in June 2018 to put an end to the harassment.
Westhoff said the defendant’s position at trial was that the plaintiffs had fabricated their claims and set the company up for a lawsuit by colluding in their written complaints. The company also denied that the plaintiffs had reported the harassment prior to their written complaints and claimed they quit before giving the company adequate time to investigate the matter.
During the one-week trial, the defendant called several current employees who testified that they never saw the sales manager behave inappropriately, but the plaintiffs called three former employees who corroborated their claims. They also relied on the notes of the attorney-investigator, who wrote a detailed account of the interview with the other saleswoman.
The jury found in favor of the two women on claims of hostile work environment and constructive discharge. Ligon was awarded $270,000 in back pay and $500,000 in noneconomic damages, while Robinson was awarded $140,000 in back pay and $700,000 in noneconomic damages. Each also was awarded $100,000 in punitive damages.
According to court records, the awards for noneconomic and punitive damages each were evenly divided to cover the periods before and after Aug. 28, 2017, which is the effective date of numerous changes to the state’s employment discrimination laws.
Judge Michael Noble declined the defense’s request for a new trial. The plaintiffs’ request for attorneys’ fees and costs remains pending.
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$1.81 million verdict
Breakdown: For Ligon: $500,000 noneconomic damages, $270,000 economic damages, $100,000 punitive damages. For Robinson: $700,000 noneconomic damages, $140,000 economic damages, $100,000 punitive damages
Venue: St. Louis Circuit Court
Case Number/Date: 1922-CC00727/Nov. 11, 2022
Judge: Michael Noble
Plaintiffs’ Expert: Ann Plunkett, Workplace Partners Inc., St. Louis (human resources management)
Insurer: Federated Service Insurance Co.
Caption: Denise Ligon and Dorothy Robinson v. Ttri-Star Imports Inc. d/b/a Mercedes-Benz of St. Louis
Plaintiffs’ Attorneys: Benjamin Westhoff, Mary Anne Sedey and Erin Lueker, Sedey Harper Westhoff, St. Louis
Defendant’s Attorneys: Tracey Wallace and Jillian Mueller, Jackson Lewis, Dallas, Texas, and St. Louis