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Judge reduces jury award in Petaluma card room sexual harassment case


A Sonoma County judge has reduced a jury award of more than $2 million to a former dealer at a Petaluma card room who was sexually harassed by her supervisor and retaliated against when she reported the abuse.

Judge Mark Tansil reduced the punitive damages portion of the award against The 101 Casino to $750,000, half of what the 10-woman, two-man jury unanimously awarded victim Shannen De La Cruz in August.

The jury calculated nearly $516,000 in past and future damages for the harassment and retaliation, plus an additional $1.5 million in punitive damages against the companies that own and operate the Petaluma card room.

In his ruling, Tansil rejected the defendants' request for a new trial, but determined that "the jury clearly should have reached a different verdict as to the amount of punitive damages."

He said the evidence "absolutely supports a jury finding that the defendants engaged in prolonged, reprehensible conduct justifying an award of punitive damages."

But, Tansil decided, the total was excessive compared to the harm suffered. Judges have the option of reducing jury awards if they determine they are unwarranted or disproportionate.

Tansil said De La Cruz suffered emotional distress, not physical injury, did not seek medical or psychological treatment and returned to comparable work a few months after she was fired from the 101 Casino.

The amount of damages used to punish the card room operators should be consistent with the damage done to De La Cruz alone, he said, not other female employees who testified about similar harassment and retaliation. He said their testimony "probably inflated the amount."

But one of De La Cruz's attorneys, Candace Clipner of Santa Rosa, said several jurors she spoke with after the trial contradicted that assessment.

"They said their verdict was solely based on what happened to Shannen," she said.

Bill Bundesen and Randy Yaple, the two men De La Cruz said harassed and retaliated against her, remained employed after she was fired.

That bothered jurors as well, Clipner said.

Jurors "very much focused on Shannen and what they put her through in retaliation and the fact that they condoned the behavior," she said of the men and card room ownership.

The card room operators, Cal-Pac Sonoma and Cal-Pac Group, are among several gaming interests held by John Park of Nevada.

Attorneys for The 101 Casino suggested they may argue on appeal that the other women's testimony shouldn't have been allowed. An appeal, filed last week, will be heard in the First District Court next year.

Los Angeles attorney Mike St. Denis said other alleged victims' testimony may have improperly influenced the jury.

"The defense was required to fight two, three, four lawsuits within one," he said. "That's probably fair if it's a situation where an individual sexually harasses a person on Monday, another person on Tuesday and another on Wednesday.

"But if the allegation is that someone was sexually harassed in 2006 in the dayshift and 2009 in the evening shift, and they're not contemporaries in terms of work, there's no nexus between the two. Then it would be appropriate to resolve in court, but just not together."

De La Cruz was a minimum-wage card dealer at The 101 Casino along Highway 101 in north Petaluma from September 2004 until she was fired in July 2006.

She testified that unwanted sexual comments from her supervisor, Bundesen, began a few months after she started and continued after she reported the offensive behavior to human resources. Bundesen then began disciplining her for minor or fabricated problems.

De La Cruz said once after she complained about Bundesen, the club's general manager, Yaple, put his arm around her lower waist.

The men denied any inappropriate behavior.