A federal judge Thursday awarded $130,000 each to three Rochester women who successfully sued a Saudi prince who said he didn’t want any female limousine drivers chauffeuring him and his entourage on a visit to the Mayo Clinic for medical treatment in 2010.

U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen ruled in November that Prince Abdul-Rahman bin Abdul-Aziz sexually discriminated against Gretchen Cooper, Barbara Herold and Lisa Boutelle when the women were fired from what promised to be lucrative work.

The three were among 40 drivers hired to escort the prince and his entourage in October 2010 and were told to be available on-call, 24 hours a day for at least a month. Cooper previously drove for a Saudi princess and earned $50 a day in tips alone, according to the 2012 complaint. But each of the women lost the assignment on their second day after the prince told the U.S.-based companies that hired them that he didn’t want women as drivers.

According to the nonprofit group Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia remains the only country that prohibits women from driving. A 1991 fatwa, or religious ruling by a Saudi grand mufti, said that allowing women to drive could “lead to many evils and negative consequences.”

The three wrote letters to Ericksen last year describing the effects the firings had on them. Cooper said she had looked forward to using the money from the chauffeur work to launch a greeting card business so she could work from home and care for her youngest daughter. Boutelle and Herold described eager dashes to grab new clothes to look presentable for their first days on the job.

Herold said their first day lasted 19 hours. Soon after they reported back the next morning at 8 a.m., they were asked to return their keys. “No women drivers,” they say they were told.

The suit also named as defendants Mohamed Ali Elbashir, who does business in Minnesota as Crown Prince Limousine, Premier Crescent Services of Rochester and Highland International Transportation Services of New York. The latter two firms hired drivers for the prince and the women settled with Premier and Highland in March.

On Thursday, Ericksen awarded the women $100,000 each for mental anguish and suffering under the Minnesota Human Rights Act. She also doubled the $15,000 that each woman sought for wage loss to $30,000 under a provision in the law that allows judges to multiply such damages up to three times.

Ericksen did not, however grant punitive damages, because “while [the] defendants may have acted unlawfully, [the] plaintiffs have not shown that they acted with deliberate disregard or malice.”

Gender Justice, a legal advocacy organization based in St. Paul, represented the women. Lisa Stratton, one of their attorneys, welcomed Thursday’s ruling.

“The key issue for us is people know now that it is not legal in the state of Minnesota or the United States to discriminate because your customer asks you to,” Stratton said. “When you do business in the United States, the law of the United States applies.”

Cooper, who has since moved to Colorado and found work as a server at a cafe, said Thursday that the case alerted her to efforts in Saudi Arabia by women seeking the right to drive.

“I’m still standing strong for their rights,” said Cooper, whose two eldest daughters were nearing driving age at the time of their mother’s firing.

 

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