When Benedict Morelli agreed to represent 25-year-old Ashley Alford in her federal sexual harassment suit against a multinational Fortune 1000 company, the New Yorker had never set foot in the Midwest before. In fact, Morelli’s first day in Illinois would be spent in court for jury selection.
“I knew I’d figure it out when I got there,” says Morelli, founding partner at the Morelli Ratner Law Firm. “I have tried cases out of the state before, but trying a case in the Midwest is a little different than trying cases in New Jersey or Pennsylvania.”
In 2005, Morelli’s client Alford was working at the Fairview Heights, Illinois, location of a national furniture and electronics rental chain. Throughout the next year, her suit claims her manager would systematically harass and make unwanted sexual contact with her—during work hours, in the store’s back room.
The harassment began with inappropriate pet names, then intensified and became more brazen the longer the company ignored Alford’s claims of sexual misconduct.
When the manager placed his genitals on Alford’s body and masturbated on her, she told her mother, who called 911. Alford retained a local attorney, who then filed a suit on her behalf. Morelli’s firm was brought in a year before the start of 2010 trial, at the attorney’s request.
“When dealing with a sexual harassment case, it’s very personal—very emotional,” Morelli says. “If someone— God forbid—loses their leg in a car accident, well, that’s very upsetting because the person lost their limb. But it’s a car accident—it happened. When a jury rules likes this in a sexual harassment case, they know that it was intentional, and they also know that the reason this manager was able to get away with this was that the company had to be looking the other way.”
Morelli adopted a strategy early on in the case and stuck to it. He tried to anticipate what the defense would be and pinpointed various themes he would concentrate on, in hopes they would stick with jurors during deliberations. He also opened with a PowerPoint presentation, a tactic he abandoned in closing.
“I took an offensive, aggressive approach and made the defense chase me instead of chasing the defense.” —Benedict Morelli
“I wanted to make eye contact, make a connection,” Morelli says. “Civil cases are won in the opening. The summation gets the money.”
Morelli took a rather unique approach with the case. After first winning over the mostly rural jury and earning the respect of the judge, he says he “tried it like a medical malpractice case. I called their witnesses first, got the entire story out through their witnesses, beat up their credibility, and by the time I put the plaintiff on the stand two weeks into the trial, the jury was ready for her.”
Morelli—who was told early on in the case that he couldn’t introduce evidence of criminal charges brought against the store manager, also named in the suit—credits this approach, along with the themes of his case, as the key to the $95 million award he secured for Alford.
“I took an offensive, aggressive approach and made the defense chase me instead of chasing the defense,” Morelli says. “I don’t chase the defense.”
The first theme of his case—Ashley’s Dilemma— centered on Alford’s claims to the company she worked for, whether she should complain and to whom.
For the next theme—Sham Policy—Morelli focused on the company’s sexual harassment policy, which he argued protected the company not the victim.
The third theme—the Cover-Up—concentrated on the company’s unwillingness to take a responsible approach to sexual harassment and how “the victim’s advocate, who was supposed to be investigating these claims, was the company’s protector,” Morelli says.
Helping his client stand up for her rights, and all women’s rights, was a gratifying experience for Morelli, he explains.
“Women aren’t garbage,” Morelli says. “Women are your daughter, mother, they’re your sister, they’re your girlfriend, they’re your wife. This company was treating women like garbage, and we took them down and made them bow their head. They had to hear us. Ashley ... she made them listen, and it was gratifying to be able to help her do that.”