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Appeals court slashes award against ASARCO in sexual-harassment case

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WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court Thursday slashed the damages that mining company ASARCO had been ordered to pay a former employee who successfully sued the company for sexual harassment at an Arizona mine.

A divided three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the $300,000 in punitive damages awarded to Angela Aguilar was excessive in comparison to the $1 in nominal damages a jury awarded her.

While the court said ASARCO’s conduct in Aguilar’s case was “highly reprehensible” and merited “the imposition of a very large punitive award,” it said $300,000 was out of line. It sent the case back to district court, where it said Aguilar could accept a lower award of $125,000 or the case could go back to trial.

“It would have been nice to keep the whole thing,” Aguilar’s attorney, Sandy Forbes, said, “but we are pleased.”

Calls to ASARCO and its attorneys were not immediately returned Thursday.

Aguilar began working in 2005 at ASARCO’s Mission Mine complex in Sahuarita, where she said her supervisor, Wayne Johnson, continuously asked her out and would press up against her when she asked for help, according to the court.

Because there was no women’s restroom at the filter plant where she worked, Aguilar had to use a portable toilet that was soon “vandalized with pornographic graffiti directed at her.”

Complaints to company officials “initially fell on deaf ears,” the court said, and Aguilar asked for and got a transfer to another unit.

In June 2006, she transferred to the main mill building, where the court said she reported to Julio Esquivel. But court documents said Esquivel would yell at Aguilar and threaten to have her fired, telling her before she even started working with him, “Your ass is mine.”

After taking leave in September 2006, Aguilar returned to work briefly in November before quitting after four days.

Arizona sued ASARCO in 2008 under the state’s civil rights act, and Aguilar later filed her own harassment suit against the company.

After an eight-day trial in U.S. District Court, a jury found ASARCO liable for the sexual harassment claims and awarded Aguilar $868,750 in punitive damages, $1 in nominal damages and no compensatory damages.

The district court later lowered the punitive damages to $300,000, the maximum allowable under Title VII, and said that amount was not constitutionally excessive.

But the appeals court Thursday cited Supreme Court rulings that punitive damages “must bear a reasonable relationship to compensatory damages,” and that was not the case here.

The appeals court said it was not bound by the Supreme Court’s suggestion that there not be more than a single-digit ratio between compensatory and punitive damages, but it said “a 300,000-to-1 ratio raises our ‘judicial eyebrow(s).’”

It settled on $125,000, citing the next-highest ratio it could find in another circuit. That amount brought a “reasonable relationship” between the award amounts, but was still “proportional to the reprehensibility of ASARCO’s conduct.”

In a partial dissent, Judge Andrew D. Hurwitz said he agreed with most of the majority opinion but that he would have left the award at $300,000.

Forbes said she had not discussed next steps in the case with Aguilar yet. Calls to the Attorney General’s Office for comment were not immediately returned.