Sandy Crouch wasn't taking any chances with the check she received from West Liberty-based Rifle Coal Co. last month.
She went straight to Rifle's bank and cashed it, walking out with $80,000 in 100-dollar bills stuffed in a bag decorated with a clown image, she said.
The money was part of a $107,000 settlement between Crouch and Rifle, reached after a federal jury in Lexington decided that Crouch had been the victim of sexual harassment while working as a flagger for Rifle from September 2005 to May 2006.
Crouch, a 52-year-old grandmother and chairwoman of the Bath County school board, maintains that her battle with Rifle led to her losing her home of 18 years. It also led to her husband, Doug Crouch, who has had six back surgeries because of an injury at a construction job in 1995, having to go back to work against his doctor's advice, she said. Sandy Crouch said she was left unable to work because of anxiety and depression caused by her experiences with Rifle.
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The company denied Crouch's allegations during the trial, and maintained that she had never complained to Rifle officials.
The money Crouch has gotten from Rifle Coal, less than the $150,000 the jury awarded her, doesn't begin to make up for what she's been through since 2005, she said.
"What we lost we'll never gain back," said Crouch, who lives in Salt Lick. "It was like having the wind knocked out of you."
The 12-hour workdays Crouch endured, sometimes with no restroom or lunch breaks, while working for Rifle, a heavy earth moving and coal mining firm, were bad enough, she said. The summer sun blistered her lips; the winter cold made her cry. Some of the people who regularly drove the stretch of Ky. 11 between Flemingsburg and Mount Sterling, where she helped direct traffic as Rifle widened and moved sections of roadway, felt so sorry for Crouch and her co-workers that they often brought them something to drink, she said.
But that was nothing compared to the overt sexual harassment, she said. The harassment included repeatedly being referred to as "Elk Ass" and being touched inappropriately by a supervisor, who once went so far as to grab her breast, leaving a dirty handprint on the front of her shirt, she said.
"You felt like they were just knocking you down and walking right up your back," Crouch said of Rifle management.
Crouch said she continued to work for Rifle because she needed the $28-plus per hour job.
Crouch has had various occupations, including jobs involving heavy manual labor, since she was 15, she said. She'd been a waitress, nursing assistant, construction worker and secretary before she began working for Rifle in early 2005. She's been on the Bath County school board for the past 22 years and she's been board chairwoman three times.
Before the Rifle job, she said, "I'd never been fired from a job and I'd never been given a rating for bad work. I've always given 110 percent and I did for Rifle Coal."
Crouch and two other female Rifle employees, Patricia Fitch, also a flagger and Deborah Perry, a heavy equipment operator, were let go from their jobs in 2006.
The women later sued Rifle in Fleming County Circuit Court, claiming that they had been subjected to discrimination and a hostile and abusive work environment caused by "longstanding pervasive, offensive and demeaning sexually-based language and conduct." They also alleged they had been discharged from their jobs in retaliation for having spoken with state investigators about working conditions.
Fitch maintained in the lawsuit that there was regular joking on the job that she had to engage in oral sex with the Fleming County project's manager in order to keep her job. She claimed that when he came to the job site, another employee would announce over a CB radio that the manager was there, so Fitch had better "pucker up and ..."
Perry claimed that when a piece of equipment operated by a male co-worker broke down, she was taken off her equipment and assigned to flagging duties, while the man operated her equipment until his was repaired.
Rifle's highest rate of pay went to bulldozer and grader operators, according to the lawsuit. The case was moved to federal court and took several twists and turns, with parts of it winding up in the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. Fitch and Perry reached confidential settlements with Rifle out of court. Crouch's sexual harassment claim was put before a jury in December.
The trial boiled down to whether jurors believed Crouch or Scott Collins, her former supervisor, who told the jury he did not harass Crouch, said attorney Tony Oppegard, who represented Crouch and the other women.
Rifle attorney Jeffrey Walther, in his opening remarks to the jury, said that all he had to say about Crouch's allegations was that the incidents did not happen. He said that even if the allegations were true, Rifle never had the opportunity to do anything about them because Crouch did not complain to Rifle management.
"She never complained to Rifle to give my client, the company, any opportunity to rectify any wrong that she may have been subjected to on the job," Walther said.
But some witnesses testified that other Rifle supervisors knew about Collins' sexually-based comments to and about Crouch and his treatment of her.
Walther declined to comment about the case for this article. "My client has asked me not to comment," he said.
Collins did not return several phone calls seeking comment for this story. Fitch and Perry, who also testified at the trial, did not want to talk about the case, Oppegard said.
Much of the questioning and testimony at the two-day trial was explicit, with graphic slang references to parts of the female anatomy.
Crouch said she didn't tell her family the "gory details" of the case until just before the trial. She said she was afraid of what her husband and son might do if they knew just what had transpired. Crouch told all of the men in her family that she didn't want them at the trial.
At one point during the trial Crouch asked her mother, Carolyn Alexander, to leave the courtroom because she didn't want her to hear some of the things she knew would be said, she said.
"I don't talk about stuff like that in front of my parents. I asked her to leave because I knew it was going to get nasty," Crouch said.
"Elk Ass — how could you make up a nickname like that?" Oppegard said. "People don't make up stuff and go through the trauma of litigation ... just on a whim because they want to make money."
The jury awarded Crouch $50,000 in compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages. But, in accordance with the law, the jurors weren't told that there are caps for damages, based on the number of a company's employees, Oppegard said.
"Companies with fewer than 14 employees are essentially protected against sexual harassment charges — they have carte blanche to do whatever without fear of legal liability," Oppegard said.
The two sides disagreed on the number of employees and other issues but eventually negotiated the $107,000 settlement after the trial.
In addition, Rifle is responsible for paying Oppegard's fees for representing her, he said. Rifle attorneys and Oppegard are still litigating his pay.
Crouch said that Rifle violated the terms of their settlement by not giving her the entire $107,000 by the April 15 deadline agreed upon by the two sides. And she said that Rifle tried to intimidate her by making her come to the company's headquarters three times to pick up her money in installments.
"It's not over," she said, declining to elaborate.