Thursday, October 12, 2000

Hooters' harassment settlement reduced

By Susan Vela
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COVINGTON — A historic sexual harassment award for an ex-Hooters waitress is being yanked away.

        Sara Steinhoff, 24, of Clifton, will receive $25,000 for the emotional distress that she endured at the Hooters restaurant in Newport — a far cry from the $275,000 a federal jury awarded her after a three-day July trial.

        She waitressed at Hooters, where the themes are adult and the waitresses' tops are tight, from August 1996 through 1997.

        At the trial, she said that she suffered unwanted sexual advances, demeaning behavior and recrimination from the restaurant's managers.

        The jury of five women and four men awarded her $250,000 in punitive damages and $25,000 in compensatory damages.

        But, U.S. District Judge William O. Bertelsman ruled Wednesdaythat she will not receive the punitive damages because:

        • Evidence presented at the trail failed to prove that Hooters managers harassed her maliciously or with reckless indifference.

        • The chain had made a good faith effort to stop sexual harassment, which meant it couldn't be held liable for its managers' actions.

        When Ms. Steinhoff worked at Hooters, the restaurant had a sexual harassment policy posted near the waitresses' schedules and a toll-free number that they could call to anonymously report harassment.

        “The ... statute requires a showing of oppression, fraud or malice, which must be proved by clear and convincing evidence for the imposition of punitive damages,” wrote Judge Bertelsman in his order.

        It was a victory for Upriver Restaurant Joint Venture, owners of the Hooters restaurant in Newport.

        “We still believe that there was undisputed evidence at the trial (that Ms. Steinhoff) was not harassed. Nonetheless, we're pleased with the result,” attorney Rachael Rowe said.

        Judge Bertelsman also assured Upriver a new trial if Ms. Steinhoff successfully appeals to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati.

        Ms. Steinhoff's attorney, Randolph H. Freking of Cincinnati, promised to appeal.

        The judge's decision “was totally incorrect,” he said.

        Last week, Judge Bertelsman heard from both sides in regard to the jury's award. He urged settlement but attorneys said that seemed impossible.

        Ms. Steinhoff wanted at least 50 percent - or $137,500 - of the jury's award. Ms. Rowe said the amount was too high.


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