New York Lawyer Stands Up for Illinois Sexual Harassment Victim

Photo: Statia Grossman

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 havetried cases out of the state before, but trying a case in theMidwest is a little different than trying cases in New Jerseyor Pennsylvania.”

In 2005, Morelli’s client Alford was working at theFairview Heights, Illinois, location of a national furnitureand electronics rental chain. Throughout the next year,her suit claims her manager would systematically harassand make unwanted sexual contact with her—during workhours, in the store’s back room.

The harassment began with inappropriate pet names,then intensified and became more brazen the longer thecompany ignored Alford’s claims of sexual misconduct.

When the manager placed his genitals on Alford’s bodyand masturbated on her, she told her mother, who called911. Alford retained a local attorney, who then filed a suiton her behalf. Morelli’s firm was brought in a year beforethe start of 2010 trial, at the attorney’s request.

“When dealing with a sexual harassment case, it’s verypersonal—very emotional,” Morelli says. “If someone—God forbid—loses their leg in a car accident, well, that’svery upsetting because the person lost their limb. But it’s acar accident—it happened. When a jury rules likes this in asexual harassment case, they know that it was intentional,and they also know that the reason this manager was ableto get away with this was that the company had to belooking the other way.”

Morelli adopted a strategy early on in the case and stuckto it. He tried to anticipate what the defense would be andpinpointed various themes he would concentrate on, inhopes they would stick with jurors during deliberations.He also opened with a PowerPoint presentation, a tactiche abandoned in closing.

“I took an offensive, aggressive approach andmade 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. Thesummation gets the money.”

Morelli took a rather uniqueapproach with the case. After firstwinning over the mostly rural jury andearning the respect of the judge, he sayshe “tried it like a medical malpracticecase. I called their witnesses first, got theentire story out through their witnesses,beat up their credibility, and by thetime I put the plaintiff on the standtwo weeks into the trial, the jury wasready for her.”

Morelli—who was told early on inthe case that he couldn’t introduceevidence of criminal charges broughtagainst the store manager, also named inthe suit—credits this approach, alongwith the themes of his case, as the keyto the $95 million award he secured for Alford.

“I took an offensive, aggressive approach and madethe 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 workedfor, whether she should complain and to whom.

For the next theme—Sham Policy—Morelli focusedon the company’s sexual harassment policy, which heargued protected the company not the victim.

The third theme—the Cover-Up—concentrated onthe company’s unwillingness to take a responsibleapproach to sexual harassment and how “the victim’sadvocate, who was supposed to be investigating theseclaims, was the company’s protector,” Morelli says.

Helping his client stand up for her rights, and allwomen’s rights, was a gratifying experience for Morelli,he explains.

“Women aren’t garbage,” Morelli says. “Women areyour daughter, mother, they’re your sister, they’re yourgirlfriend, they’re your wife. This company was treatingwomen like garbage, and we took them down and madethem bow their head. They had to hear us. Ashley …she made them listen, and it was gratifying to be ableto help her do that.”

New York Lawyer Stands Up for Illinois Sexual Har […]