(CN) – A former state judge cannot overturn the jury conviction for sexually harassing three employees, a federal judge ruled, adding that the award of $1 million in punitive damages to each victim is excessive.
James A. Blackstock, former judge of Brazoria County Court at Law No. 2, was sued by two current county employees and one former employee for sexual harassment in March 2010.
Mikki Kalina, the former employee, and Estella Strawn and Rebecca Sirmans, all worked in the county’s juvenile probation department under Blackstock, who served as chair of the board.
The women also sued Brazoria County and the juvenile probation board, claiming they turned a blind eye to Blackstock’s conduct even though they had notice of Blackstock’s conduct dating back to 1993 when a former county employee had sued the county for Blackstock’s harassment.
Sirmans, a 17-year county employee, testified that Blackstock stroked her butt with several fingers on an elevator. She also testified that Blackstock had earlier sent her a pornographic email. Sirmans began avoiding Blackstock and complained to her boss, but no action was taken against Blackstock.
Kalina testified that she had known Blackstock her whole life and graduated from high school with his son. She said Blackstock had grabbed her breast from behind as she was leaving his office on several occasions. She also testified that Blackstock grabbed her butt several times, bear-hugged her inappropriately and asked her what he had to do to get in her pants. Kalina said her boss warned that she would be fired when she complained about the incidents.
Strawn testified that she interacted with Blackstock four to five times a month while working as a legal secretary for the juvenile probation department. She said he slapped and squeezed her butt in a courtroom in front of another probation officer, and that he came from behind his bench and grabbed her breast another time.
When Blackstock refused to stop hugging them in private meetings at their request, the women complained to a female judge. When the court still failed to take action, they alerted the county district attorney who launched an investigation.
Blackstock had admitted to the court that, while working as a judge, he touched one or more of the plaintiffs’ butts with his hand and sent a pornographic email to at least one of them.
Brazoria County reached a settlement with the three women, and a jury returned a unanimous verdict against Blackstock on July 15, 2011.
The jury awarded $50,000 each in compensatory damages to Kalina and Sirmans, and $100,000 in compensatory damages to Strawn. They also awarded each woman $1 million in punitive damages.
In post-trial motions, Blackstock said there was not sufficient evidence to support the sexual harassment claims, and that state and federal law do not support plaintiffs’ claims.
U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt disagreed about the lack of evidence, citing ample testimony and Blackstock’s own admissions.
Blackstock had also moved to dismiss the plaintiffs’ claims based on a two-year statute of limitations, but the judge rejected this maneuver because Blackstock had failed to plead it during trial.
Hoyt also rejected Blackstock’s attempt to overturn the emotional distress claims. Though Blackstock had said the women’s settlement with Brazoria County invalidated this claim, Hoyt said the allegations were separate from the county since Blackstock had acted beyond the scope of his official duties.
Hoyt did, however, grant Blackstock’s motion to dismiss plaintiffs’ state tort claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress as he found no evidence of aggravation that supports a separate independent tort, he wrote.
The Sept. 16 ruling also states that court will reduce $3 million in punitive damages to match with the pecuniary damage awards.
Blackstock faces a separate civil lawsuit, also filed in March 2010, for the same behavior.