Supermarket Harassment Suit

ByABC News

June 20, 2002 -- When a California jury awarded $30 million in damages against a supermarket chain in April, it was one of the biggest sexual harassment awards in legal history.

The amount, awarded against the Ralphs supermarket chain for failing to stop abuse by a store manager, was nearly 10 times greater than an earlier judgment in the case. But as the jurors left the courtroom, they were handed a packet of information that made them wish they had brought an even stiffer penalty.

"At that point, $30 million obviously to me fell short," the jury foreman, John Adair, told ABCNEWS. "They needed a whupping and they got a spanking."

During the trial, the jury had heard a litany of abuses that six female employees said they suffered at the hands of store manager Roger Misiolek after he took over the Ralphs store in Escondido, Calif. in 1995. The women said Misiolek terrorized them for more than a year by using foul language and racial slurs, fondling them against their will and throwing everything from pens and telephones to a 12-pack of soda at them. When they complained to Ralphs, the chain transferred Misiolek to another store, allowing him to keep his manager job, still overseeing 80 people.

Lawyers for Ralphs told the court that was the first time the chain's headquarters had had complaints about Misiolek, who had a reputation for boosting profits at the stores he managed.

After delivering their verdict, however, the jurors learned there was more to the story than they were told. The plaintiffs' attorney, Philip Kay, handed them a packet of information that the judge had ruled was inadmissible at trial.

Earlier Allegations Barred From Trial

The packet contained information alleging a 15-year reign of terror by Misiolek at six stores, starting in 1985, a full decade before he came to Escondido. A woman who worked under Misiolek at a Ralphs in La Mesa, Calif. in 1985 said he called her a "dirty Mexican" and threw a file folder at her, cutting her leg. A black woman who worked at a San Diego branch in 1992 said he insulted her when she had trouble pronouncing his name, telling her, "You could call me, 'Yessuh, boss.' " Both women — and numerous others — said they had complained to Ralphs management about Misiolek's conduct.

If the jury had known about the other complaints, they would have awarded considerably more than $30 million, Adair believes.

New Owner Fights Award

The Escondido plaintiffs' 1996 lawsuit came to trial in 1998. A jury returned a harassment verdict and awarded the women $3.3 million in punitive damages. But a judge threw out the 1998 award after learning of juror misconduct — leading to the new trial in 2002.

The 450-store Ralphs chain was bought by Cincinnati-based Kroger Co., the nation's largest supermarket chain, in 1999. By that time, Misiolek had been demoted to working on a loading dock. Kroger has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment, and Kroger CEO Joseph Pichler told ABCNEWS he believes Misiolek's conduct was "outrageous... I condemn it."

However, Misiolek remained an employee for 14 months after Kroger's took over the chain. ABCNEWS has learned that Ralphs management were aware of further complaints against Misiolek during that period. A letter sent by management to Misiolek in 2000 detailed numerous new allegations that he continued to make sex- and race-based insults and to touch people inappropriately. After 14 months, the company suspended him and he quit.

Ralphs and its parent company Kroger are continuing to fight the award. Pichler said that while he sympathizes with the Escondido plaintiffs, he has an obligation to his shareholders to try to avoid handing over $30 million.

Throughout both trials, Misiolek denied all the allegations against him. He declined to talk to ABCNEWS, but in his resignation letter to Ralphs he remained defiant. While he conceded that he might have "become angry on occasion," he wrote that "it was not in any undue fashion."

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