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Exaggeration and Histrionics

In 1996, eight years after the women filed suit against Eveleth Mines, Judge Patrick McNulty released his decision on how much the women should get in damages. It wasn’t much.

McNulty is dead now, but he made clear in his opinion that he just didn’t find the women’s stories credible.

The massive equipment in the mine dwarfs ordinary vehicles. - Photo by Stephen Smith

McNulty wrote, “Sexual discrimination claims are highly emotional, and experience teaches that this characteristic is often manifested in exaggeration and histrionics by claimants and counsel, and by interpreting reasonably expectable interpersonal conflicts in sexual terms.”

McNulty wrote that the women were misinterpreting the men’s actions at the mine. One woman had testified that a man asked her for sex and later lunged at her. She thought he meant to rape her. Judge McNulty said she had an active imagination; the judge said maybe the man just meant to say “boo.”

McNulty said hostile environment cases were so new that the mine had not been on notice that its behavior might be illegal – and besides, the judge said, it couldn’t be expected to counteract years of male dominant culture overnight.

The judge gave the women damage awards ranging from $2,500 to $25,000. In other sexual harassment cases, women had been winning hundreds of thousands of dollars – even millions. So the women decided to appeal. But it was too late for Pat Kosmach.

Kosmach had been healthy when she first filed the suit, tough and feisty. She was a natural leader; she pulled the women together and helped keep their spirits up. But as the case wore on, she began having trouble walking. Her friend Jeanne Aho remembers they day Pat Kosmach learned that she had Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“When she called, it was like one of the worst days of my life,” Aho says. “She said she was relieved that she finally found out what was wrong. But it was a death sentence.”

As she got sicker, it became clear that even if the women won the harassment policy they wanted, Pat Kosmach would never benefit from it. She wouldn’t be able to work, and she wouldn’t be around to enjoy any money they might win. Still, she went on with the court battle, hoping she could win some money to leave to her children. Aho says her friend signed court documents from her hospital bed.

“It was horrible,” she says. “To watch somebody lose their body inch by inch, and all the while trying to keep up her strength to keep fighting this thing. Although she did live longer than they expected her to, out of sheer determination to try to see this thing through.”

Pat Kosmach died in 1994, six years after filing the suit against Eveleth Mines. Because she died before the case was resolved, her family would get nothing. Jeanne Aho says her friend left a piece of herself at the mine – literally. She made sure some of her ashes were sprinkled over Eveleth Taconite.

“Kind of like, ‘I’m gonna haunt them forever.’” Aho says. “’They’re not rid of me. They’ll never be rid of me.’”

Sixteen of the remaining women appealed their case – including Marcy Steele.

Steele says the women went through phases when they wanted to quit, but they told each other, “No! We’re going to stick it out. You know you’re right. That’s what they want us to do. What more can they do to us?”

But Steele says it was a lonely battle. “There were quite a few years we didn’t go out into the community much,” she says. “You just felt everybody was talking about those damn women from Eveleth Taconite.”

But in the end, the women won. In 1997, a federal appeals court reversed Judge McNulty. The court scolded the judge and the lawyers for letting the case drag on for a decade, and for letting the mining company lawyers ask invasive questions of the women. The court ordered a new trial. And in 1998, the women and the mine finally settled the case.

As part of the settlement, the women and their lawyers agreed not to disclose how much they received. But lawyer Paul Sprenger says, “Financially they got as much as any women in any case, or more.”

Next: The Legacy

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