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Roxanne Conlin: Jury awards $1.4M in ethanol plant harassment case

The Telegraph

BY RYAN J. FOLEY, Associated PressOctober 28, 2014 

IOWA CITY, IOWA — A former lab manager at a northeastern Iowa ethanol plant says last week's $1.4 million verdict in her favor sends a message that workplace sexual harassment cannot be tolerated.

Tina Haskenhoff said she hopes the Chickasaw County jury's decision changes a culture that allowed Homeland Energy Solutions plant manager Kevin Howes to make inappropriate comments about her and other women's breasts and to discipline Haskenhoff after she complained.

"When I complained, excuses were made for Kevin and nothing was ever done. They made me feel like it was my fault," Haskenhoff, 46, said Tuesday. "By their verdict, the jurors said, 'No, you cannot do that. That was wrong. She didn't deserve it.' I had been waiting so long for someone to say that."

She said she cried when the eight-member jury ruled unanimously Thursday that she suffered sexual harassment and retaliation at the ethanol plant in Lawler. Jurors awarded Haskenhoff $100,000 in back pay and $1.3 million for past and future emotional distress.

Her attorneys, Brooke Timmer and Roxanne Conlin, will next ask a judge to order front pay, coverage of attorney fees and changes including sexual harassment training for Howes, who remains plant manager.

Kevin Visser, an attorney representing Homeland Energy Solutions, said the verdict was tainted by improper jury instructions and that a new trial will likely be granted on appeal. He acknowledged there were "unprofessional and inappropriate and distasteful comments" toward women at the plant, but said they were addressed when reported. He said the company reprimanded Howes after finding its sexual harassment policy was violated.

Howes has no comment, said Homeland Energy Solutions CEO Walter Wendland, who expressed disappointment in the verdict. He said the company promptly responded to Haskenhoff's "non-physical harassment."

Such a large verdict in an employment case is unusual because Iowa juries are known for caution, said Brad Lint, executive director of the Iowa Association for Justice. He said it's clear that jurors saw the company's conduct as reprehensible and damaging to Haskenhoff.

Haskenhoff, who's been diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, said she's lost confidence in her abilities. She recently was laid off from her job at John Deere, but has enrolled at Upper Iowa University with plans of completing a four-year degree.

"For the first time in a long time, I have some hope," she said. "I'm just going to try to find the 'me' that used to be and move on."

Haskenhoff testified that Howes often made comments about her breasts and once took a photo of her cleavage at a baseball game to share with colleagues. She complained when Howes made a 2010 remark about her missing work for a mammogram appointment, suggesting employees would pay money to fondle her breasts if she "sat out in the parking lot" instead, according to court documents.

Haskenhoff testified she dropped the complaint after receiving pressure from Howes and another manager. She said she hoped the behavior would stop but it didn't.

In 2011, Haskenhoff walked out during her shift after overhearing Howes tell a salesman that Haskenhoff was getting married for money. She called Howes an expletive and sent him an email complaining about the anti-female culture. Howes soon pushed for Haskenhoff's firing.

Company executives later told Haskenhoff that some of her complaints were found to have merit, but then Howes put her on a performance improvement plan that same day following her meeting with them. They denied it was retaliation.

Haskenhoff quit the next day. Jurors ruled her resignation was a "constructive discharge," meaning the conditions were so intolerable that she was forced out.

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