The Story Behind His Fight for a Big Jury Verdict
When James Stevens filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Vons Companies, Inc. in late 2004, he had no idea the toll it would take on his life.
Like many other employees who file complaints against their employers, Stevens simply wanted to be heard and for his female harasser to be disciplined. Little did he know that the internal complaint process was just the beginning of a journey that continues to date.
An exceptional 26-year employee Stevens was transferred, suspended and later, in his own words, "set up and fired for acts I never committed" for complaining to the supermarket's human resources department that he was being sexually harassed by the company's white, female general merchandise manager.
"A country boy from Texas," Stevens was raised in a strict, religious environment where both parents were pastors. He was appalled at the language and sexual innuendos from the manager, and equally shocked when Vons didn't take his complaint seriously.
These actions compelled Stevens to file not only a civil lawsuit for sexual harassment, but also claims for unlawful retaliation and wrongful termination. Two years later and at the end of a 15-day jury trial, on October 28, 2006, Stevens was awarded $18.4 million. "For about a month I was an 18-million-dollar man," Stevens joked. "That was until the trial judge reduced the jury award to $2.4 million," he added.
In addition to losing his job, income, medical benefits, health and mental stability, Stevens also lost his family–his wife of 26 years and their three children–some of his friends, and he almost lost his house. He was devastated. But, this was only part one of Stevens' battle.
Like many employees who sue their employers for harassment or wrongful termination, Stevens found that his case did not end, even with a favorable jury award. While he had convinced a jury of his peers that the conduct of Vons constituted a violation against well-established state laws prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace, and also that in transferring him and ultimately terminating him after 26 years of service, Vons' actions were sufficiently reprehensible as to warrant over $16 million in punitive damages.
In disagreement with the award, Vons requested, and the judge agreed, that the award be dramatically reduced by more than 80 percent to a total of $2.4 million.
"Big companies rely on folk giving up," Stevens offered. "They think that no money equals no power and use that as a way to discourage people from pursuing justice. And unfortunately, we (African Americans) have to fight for what others take for granted. But, I had to go on. After losing my hard-fought verdict, my family, my livelihood, and contemplating suicide at one point, I had nothing else to lose."
Although the journey continues for Stevens, he is putting his lessons to work. To his credit, in addition to bouncing back from the trials and tribulations of his own case, Stevens has started a new organization, "Justice," to educate and advocate for those needing help navigating the judicial system. While working on his newest venture, Stevens' legal challenges continue.
Not deterred by the unfavorable reduction of his jury award, Stevens believes that his case is about more than money. He currently is seeking to have his original jury award reinstated by appeals court and petitioning the California Supreme Court.
"This is about standing up and fighting for what you believe in and pushing to make a change in a workplace where I saw employees mistreated time and time again for complaining about conduct that was clearly offensive and harassing," he explained.
His attorney of record, Martin & Martin, LLP, one of Los Angeles' few African American female owned and operated law firms, is no stranger to these types of matters.
Headed by Harvard Law School graduates, including Areva Martin, Esq., who has consistently been named one of Los Angeles' top attorneys, Martin & Martin, LLP's boutique litigation practice specializes in labor and employment matters. "There are critical issues in this case that need to be addressed on appeals," commented Aram Kouyoumdjian, Esq., one of the attorneys at the firm who is assigned to Stevens's case.
Legal expert to the Dr. Phil Show and Managing Partner of the firm, Martin, explains, "Many issues can arise during litigation, which makes appeals inevitable, including large jury awards for punitive damages. In certain circumstances, a trial judge has the authority to change the jury's verdict by reducing the amount of damages awarded, or by overturning it altogether. Even if they win a major jury verdict, plaintiffs may see their awards slashed or even taken away.
"As Mr. Stevens has experienced, the fight over post-trial motions can be as fierce as the trials themselves, since millions of dollars are at stake," Martin stated. "Any employee who is going to make complaints of unlawful discrimination has to be well-informed of the legal system and the many stages of litigation including trials and appeals. Ultimately, Mr. Stevens is to be commended for taking a stance and for being vigilant in his fight to rid his former workplace of discrimination."