NorVal Electric Co-op ordered to pay over $2 million for GM’s sexual misconduct

Story by: AJ Etherington, Billings Gazette.

A Hi-Line electric cooperative has been ordered by a Valley County district judge to pay more than $2 million to the victim of a years-old sexual harassment complaint against the company’s general manager.

NorVal Electric Co-op in Glasgow has been ordered to pay its former office manager and financial officer, Shalaine Lawson, $1,631,834 after Judge Yvonne Laird upheld a ruling by the state’s human rights commission finding NorVal’s general manager, Craig Herbert of Glasgow, sexually harassed Lawson while she was his direct subordinate and then retaliated after she she made a complaint.

The final judgement means NorVal will have to pay the damages plus interest, costs to Lawson of $48,258 and attorney’s fees of $519,837 plus costs or fees incurred trying to collect on the final judgment. After interest is factored in, the total cost to NorVal will likely top $2.4 million.

Herbert remains NorVal’s general manager.

Lawson brought her complaint to the HRC after she confronted her boss and the cooperative’s board about a long-running string of sexually inappropriate comments and touching by Herbert that started in early 2017. Instead of addressing the matter, NorVal’s board deferred to Herbert who retaliated against her, according to the findings of fact from the commission.

In February, Judge Laird affirmed the HRC’s decision. Laird also increased the award Lawson was owed from the company by recalculating front pay damages— meaning wages Lawson would have earned had she been allowed to remain with the company.

Beginning in 2017, Herbert began making inappropriate comments and suggesting he wanted to have an affair with her. On occasions he would touch her by “popping her back” or hugging her, and he often made comments about her sex life. In late 2017, while attending a work-related conference, Herbert invited Lawson to his hotel room for a meeting. Lawson refused and days later confronted Herbert about his conduct.

NorVal’s policy for making a complaint about sexual harassment required the employee to report any complaint to their immediate supervisor or the general manager if the supervisor is the offender. Lawson was left with no recourse. Still, she continued trying to resolve the matter and “move on” by involving the board of directors. After everything failed, she made a complaint to the Montana Human Rights Bureau, which investigated.

The case has gone on for years with the HRB complaint being filed on Nov. 24, 2017, and the final judgement from Laird coming just this past Tuesday — a span of four years.

In addition to the compensation owed Lawson, Laird also ordered NorVal: to amend its harassment policies and procedures so the company can identify, investigate and resolve discrimination complaints; train employees on preventing and remedying discrimination; and obtain approval from the Montana HRB for all of its harassment policies, procedures and training.

Laird, the judge, also sanctioned NorVal’s attorney, Maxon Davis with Davis, Hatley, Haffeman & Tighe, P.C. in Great Falls, for what she called “dilatory tactics” used throughout the case. Dilatory tactics are when lawyers use the procedures of the court system in an abusive way to delay the progress of the court’s proceedings.

The sanctions applied only to post-judgement actions regarding fees and costs owed to Lawson for added attorney fees due to Davis’ omitting information needed by the court to make a decision.

The case of Lawson vs. NorVal has also caught the attention of the federal government. In October 2019, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit with U.S. Judge Brian Morris in Great Falls. The suit alleges the same facts as the Montana case, but comes with the teeth of the federal government to issue disciplinary fines against the company and to further compensate Lawson. The federal lawsuit came after efforts by the EEOC to engage NorVal in “informal methods of conciliation” to resolve the case outside of court failed. NorVal rejected any conciliation agreement with the EEOC and the commission described any further efforts as “futile or non-productive.” A hearing for summary judgement is set for Jan. 12, 2022.

Both parties’ attorneys, Davis and Shea, declined to comment on the case. NorVal has 30 days to file an appeal to the Montana Supreme Court, otherwise they have 90 days to pay on the judgment.

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