Women win discrimination suit against ex-aluminum plant exec
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A former Ravenswood aluminum plant CEO's idea for reducing costs may cost his company $1 million.
A Jackson County jury last week awarded two female steelworkers at Constellium's aluminum mill $500,000 each after a company suggestion box turned into a hotpot of gender harassment.
Plant CEO Melvin Lager decided to start an "Ask the CEO" program to let plant workers send him ideas, including cost saving measures. In a later deposition, Lager said he would reply to any and all comments and then post the comments and his response on a bulletin board near the plant gates.
A member of the United Steelworkers Local 5668 warned Lager this might not be a good idea, said Walt Auvil, the attorney for the two women who sued Constellium.
The union member was right.
In October 2009, a plant employee Larry Keifer submitted separate comments aimed at the women, Sharon Griffith and Lou Ann Wall, according to a court filing.
He accused both women of being "lazy asses" and Griffith in particular of being a "lazy worthless bitch," according to exhibits presented during the trial. Both women are 35-year veterans of the plant, Auvil said.
Lager or a staffer retyped Keifer's comments and redacted the women's names and the curse words aimed at them.
Lager supplied a "CEO response" to both comment cards.
"This doesn't seem to be the best use of time or equipment," Lager replied to one comment.
"As I responded to a similar comment, we need everyone to be fully engaged and productive," Lager responded to the other comment.
Then, slightly redacted comment cards and the CEO's responses were posted near the plant gates, for everyone to see.
Griffith and Wall are the only two women in their unit. One of the cards identified their unit. Everyone knew whom the comments were about, Auvil said.
"I mean, I don't know how effective a job of redaction that was," Auvil said.
Auvil said his clients were used to some bawdy treatment by men at the plant.
"They made a choice, very consciously, both of them, to say, 'Hey, it's a man's environment, it's a tough job and we're not going to go make any friends with any of these guys griping and moaning all the time about the fact we work in a rough environment with a bunch of guys,'" Auvil said.
But this time the comments came from the plant CEO. The comments changed the dynamic at the plant, Auvil said.
So, the pair sued.
"Their position was it is different when the CEO has done it," Auvil said. "This isn't just a coworker you can laugh off and say, 'Shut up,' or whatever: this is the head of the company endorsing or appearing to endorse this type of language."
Lager has since left the company.
On Dec. 20, the jury awarded both women $250,000 each for emotional distress and $250,000 each in punitive damages.
Constellium plans to fight the $1 million verdict.
"We believe the verdict in this case is excessive, not justified by the evidence, and we plan to seek relief from the court," company spokeswoman Laura Prisc said Wednesday.
Constellium is jointly owned by investment fund Apollo Management Group, Australian-based mining company Rio Tinto Alcan and Fonds Strategique d'Investissement, a sovereign wealth fund operated by the French government.