The magistrate had a problem with Paul Sprenger’s case.
Sprenger and his legal team had filed a class-action suit against Eveleth Taconite on behalf of female workers fed up with being groped, pinched, propositioned and threatened in their workplace.
The case hinged on the “reasonable woman” test: Would a reasonable woman consider this behavior harassment? That presented a problem, the magistrate explained to Sprenger’s colleague, Larry Schaefer. “I’ve got to tell you,” he said. “I’ve never met a reasonable woman.”
It took 11 years, but Sprenger ultimately wrung compensation for the workers out of the company, winning the nation’s first class-action sexual harassment case.
It was one victory in a life spent taking on the big guys on behalf of the little guys. When the 2005 film “North Country,” based on the case, was made, actor Woody Harrelson played a character fashioned after Sprenger.
Sprenger was fearless, clever and unswerving in his belief that improving conditions for American workers was just as good for companies as it was for employees.
“He loved to be David to any Goliath,” said Sprenger’s widow and law partner, Jane Lang.
She recalled that when he went after the University of Minnesota for gender discrimination, representing assistant chemistry professor Shyamala Rajender, the case pried open tenure track positions to women in the sciences.
He faced down Burlington Northern Railroad on behalf of its black employees.
“He loved to challenge an insurance company, a multinational company, a bank,” Lang said.
“The bigger the better. If it was a favorite son, that was OK too.”