December 11, 2001 at 7:40 PM EST - Updated July 3 at 1:40 AM
AKRON, Ohio (AP) - Destroying the public work records of two $10-an-hour secretaries will cost the city of Akron $1.7 million.
A jury on Monday ruled in the secretaries' favor in U.S. District Court in a case brought against the city by the two workers. Jurors ruled that the city destroyed hundreds of records when a lawsuit by the secretaries over $2,000 in back pay appeared imminent.
The jury awarded former secretary Elizabeth Kish $480,000, or $1,000 for each record the city destroyed.
The jury also gave Kish, 43, $480,000 in punitive damages, ruling that the records were willfully destroyed in an effort to thwart her lawsuit.
Kish was awarded another $500 in compensatory damages and the $493 in back pay she was asking for before filing the lawsuit.
Victoria Elder, 35, was awarded $380,000 for the records destruction and another $380,000 in punitive damages, and was given $500 in compensatory damages and $414 in back overtime pay.
"We stood up for our rights and we won," Elder said.
The $1,000-per-document figure for destroying public records was established by the Legislature in 1985. Attorneys say the largest previous award for records destruction was $4,000.
John N. Childs, an attorney retained by the city to defend the case, would not comment on the verdict, which came after 13 hours of deliberations.
During opening statements, Childs told jurors that a handful of records were destroyed and that the women were not damaged as a result. In closing arguments, he said the women were shown all their records, then acknowledged that perhaps as many as 600 records were destroyed.
The women had worked in the Plans and Permits Division beginning in 1996.
The women's attorney, Warner Mendenhall, a former City Council member, said the verdict should be a message to all governments.
"The city of Akron is very cavalier in regard to its treatments of employees and public records, and I think this verdict teaches the city a lesson," he said.
(Copyright 2001 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)