Larry Schaefer: We are here for the purpose of celebrating Jean Boler’s retirement. It’s both a joyous and a sad occasion. I’ve had the great privilege of working with Jean for many years. We’ve worked together both in our prior positions at Sprenger & Lang and now at Schaefer Halleen. So Jean, we wanted to just ask some basic questions of you as you’re approaching this wonderful milestone and just talk to you a little bit about your career. Initially, I just want to ask what drew you to discrimination work?
Jean Boler: Well, originally it was class action work with Sprenger & Lang and it just seemed like after going to law school, and everything we learned there and kind of seeing what people were doing out in the world, and working for Judge [Haney] who was a very civil rights oriented judge, who was the judge I first clerked for. It was my passion to work on the expanding civil rights side of the law. And so Sprenger & Lang was certainly that. And then when I got a chance to work at the city of Seattle, I actually was able to also do civil rights work kind of from the inside and working on police accountability issues. And then thankfully, when we moved back to Minnesota, you gave me the opportunity to come and work for you. And I have met so many wonderful clients and had the privilege of working with so many brave men and women who were able to change their workplace and challenge the things that people were saying about them. And I just have found that to be extremely rewarding and really a privilege to work for those people.
Jean Boler’s Role in a Groundbreaking Sexual Harassment Case
Larry Schaefer: Well, it’s been a privilege for us, Jean to have you and for me to be able to work with you again. Let me ask you about some of the achievements that you had in your illustrious career. At Sprenger & Lang I know early in the process, you began to get involved in what became the Jenson v. Eveleth Mines sexual harassment case. And that that case has quite a sort of storied history. What was your involvement in that, just generally from start to finish? Were you there from the beginning through every step of the process?
Jean Boler: Paul Sprenger had interviewed Lois and Kathy. So he had already taken the case when I got there, but nothing had been done on the case. So I started from the ground floor drafting the complaint, and then we put it in litigation and had four or five successive trials in Duluth. Well, three trials in Duluth and then the one trial that was in St. Paul before Judge Kyle. And we were on the brink of doing the final trial before a judge here when the case resolved. So I did all the discovery work, defended and took depositions, and just was involved in every phase of that case.
Larry Schaefer: And how long was that process? How long was your involvement in that case?
Jean Boler: I joined Sprenger & Lang and ’89, and I think it was finally resolved in ’97. And it had been going on…I had been with the state of Minnesota before that. So the case itself went on for 10 to 12 years, but my involvement was for eight or nine years.
Larry Schaefer: And that case is noteworthy for a lot of reasons. Among them, it’s the first time a court has recognized a class of women to sue for a sexually hostile work environment. And then you were obviously involved through every step in that process. Do you feel like the impact of that case has been felt?
Jean Boler: The impact of Jenson? Well, I think number one, it had a big impact in terms of the law because of the ability to bring class actions in hostile environment cases. And the reason that’s generally considered difficult is because every … it was said before that, that every woman experienced the environment in a different way, but we were able to prove with the help of a sociologist, that if you have the environment, every woman there is going to be effected by a hostile work environment. So we established that. And then the damages decision out of the Eighth Circuit was also very good because it established parameters around the challenges that defendants could bring to emotional distress claims, because frankly in the three trials that you and I, Larry, did up in Duluth, the defendants went way too far into matters that were totally irrelevant.
And the Eighth Circuit, when they finally got to see the appeal were appalled by that. And so that has helped to establish limits to protect all sexual harassment plaintiffs going forward from that kind of invasive discovery. And then they also agreed with us that the emotional distress damages were way too low for what the women experienced. And so that helped set kind of a floor for sexual harassment damages. But then I think beyond just the legal cases, the fact that it became a book, it was actually written about a lot in newspapers at the time and there were feature articles. And so it kind of got introduced to people who wouldn’t normally be reading a court case. And then when the book came out and then subsequently the movie, I think it just raised everybody’s awareness about what was actually happening to women in traditionally male jobs, like what was happening up at the mines, and just sexual harassment in general, and the fight that people have to go through, not just at their workplace, but with the courts too.
So I think it had a really out sized impact because of the way that the story just captured people and it gets told and re-told. And it’s amazing to me … people I just happen to meet, somebody will always bring up, “Well, Jean worked on the case that was part of the North Country movie.” And they’re like, “Oh gosh.” They all know about it. So it seems like it’s had a big effect. I’m very proud of that.
Larry Schaefer: Do you feel like … and obviously, this is an area of the law that you focused on both at Sprenger & Lang and in your work as an advocate at Schaefer Halleen. Do you feel like the law effectively addresses these issues? Are you sort of optimistic about what you’re leaving behind in terms of the status of law for individuals that are harassed in the workplace?
Jean Boler: Well, initially I’d been very disappointed in the way that sexual harassment had been handled and how bringing sexual harassment claims to a jury had been narrowed in both the state and the federal law. And judges were taking cases that should have gone to the jury to figure out whether this was harassment or not and saying, “He didn’t touch her four times instead of three times. And there was only one hug on a Tuesday and three days later something else happened.” So they were really getting way too far into the facts in order to dismiss cases. And so part of what I worked on when I was at Schaefer Halleen was trying to change at least the state law, so that this test of severe or pervasive wouldn’t be so strictly construed as to limit people’s right to a jury trial and sexual harassment claims.
And we tried a couple of times and didn’t manage to convince the legislature, but then the Supreme Court, Minnesota Supreme Court, about three weeks ago came out with a decision that was very helpful I think to sexual harassment plaintiffs and will mean that they will once again get their claims taken to a jury. And more importantly, I think it educates the defense bar too when you’re trying to settle a case for sexual harassment victims. I always hear, “Well, it doesn’t meet the definition of sexual harassment” for something that to me was obviously sexual harassment. And now with the Minnesota Supreme Court … disagreed with the trial court and set the case before them should go to a jury and that most cases should go to a jury, I think that was a huge win for sexual harassment plaintiffs. And I feel my faith in the judiciary renewed after taking a nose dive for a while.
Larry Schaefer: Yeah. And that’s the kind decision that came from a Minnesota Supreme Court. Throughout your long career, what’s been the biggest surprise for you as a lawyer?
Jean Boler: Well, I think when I was a young lawyer, the biggest surprise was that you couldn’t just go into a court and demonstrate something that to me was obvious and have them agree … you keep thinking when you’re in law school and when you’re a younger lawyer that justice will win and all that. Well, you find out that that’s not necessarily always the case. And I think that wisens you up to the value of resolving cases, being persuasive but not necessarily always ending up having a judge decide. So I think there was an initial kind of being taken aback by how often the courts are kind of hostile to employment cases. But now I think there’s been a lot of education among lawyers, both defense lawyers and plaintiffs lawyers.
And I left the plaintiff’s bar while I was working in Seattle. And when I came back, well, the court cases were disappointing. I found a lot of the negotiations a lot more fruitful. When I first started out, it used to be that you had to get to the … you had to pick the jury and then finally you’d talk about settlement. And now there’s a lot more acknowledgement on both sides that it’s better to settle cases.
Persistence During Difficult Cases
Larry Schaefer: You’re known for many things – among them is persistence especially, and that’s exemplified by the eight year or longer journey in the Jenson case. Is there anything that you would say to yourself? And that case had a roller coaster of highs and lows, and any quotes or any mantras you would say to yourself to stay the course when you were involved in long, long battles like that?
Jean Boler: Gosh. I did. I think it was particular to that case. In that case, I would say, “Well, if Lois can do it, I certainly can. If the women can do it, then the kind of pressure that I have on me is nothing as compared to them.” And I also did have a sense that in the really long view, most cases ultimately do come out fairly well. I think my perspective on that has changed as I’ve gone through a lot more cases where … with the Jenson case, it seemed very important to win the war on that. And so that took us for a very long road and we had a very calcitrant defendant. And so it was forced that way.
I think now when I’ve dealt with clients more recently, I very much focused on, “Well, what is it that you want your next year to look like, or two years, or three years? What’s your best case scenario?” And really not just rely on the law to eventually reward them, but to really be realistic about their goals. And I think it’s kind of more of a holistic approach
Larry Schaefer: What would you say are some big lessons you’ve learned through the course of your career?
Jean Boler: Persistence like you said. There’s always another day. And oftentimes just time going by, or new moves in the litigation, or something will change course if I’m feeling discouraged about something. So being persistent. I guess one of the big lessons I’ve learned is the kind of strength of character that it takes to be someone who challenges your workplace. The plaintiffs, the women, the African Americans, the transgender and gay people that we’ve represented, it’s so much easier just to walk away and get another job, but to say, “No, I really don’t think that I was treated right.” And take a stand, it takes a lot of courage and I’m continually amazed at the level of courage that people show.
Larry Schaefer: If you were to give a new lawyer interested in becoming a plaintiff’s employment lawyer advice, what would that be?
Jean Boler: Be ready to be very empathetic. People usually come to us in sort of one of the most difficult, stressful times that they have and they sometimes aren’t at their best, but if you can really put yourself into their shoes, you’re going to be the most helpful possible to your client. So I think that would be one message that I would give. And then also, it’s a really powerful thing to be a lawyer and be able to argue the law and represent people. And that’s something that people should take very seriously and be thinking about what’s good for their client and maybe society at large whenever they’re representing people.
Larry Schaefer: What would you identify as the most rewarding parts of your career or the accomplishments that you’re most proud of?
Jean Boler: Of course, the Jenson case, that’s the one I always get asked about. And then when I worked for the city of Seattle, working on their police accountability, the consent decree with the department of justice. And I’ve recently heard from people in Seattle and also people here in Minneapolis who know that I was involved in that, and everybody’s looking for a way to make the police more of the kind of agency that we want and there’s things that have worked places and things that haven’t worked. But I think that, that it is an extremely important change that has to happen and people can’t stop working on that. But I think in Seattle, we were able to negotiate a good consent decree and worked hard for years to get our police department culture turned around. So I’m very proud of that too.
Police Accountability and the Future of Civil Rights
Larry Schaefer: You were actually recognized by the Seattle City Council and the mayor, they named June 8th, Jean Boler Day, is that right?
Jean Boler: That’s right. They issued a proclamation and everything.
Larry Schaefer: Was that in part because of what you had accomplished in the work that you had done on police accountability? And that issue couldn’t be more timely now in light of what happened to George Floyd and others, and the movement that’s sort of unprecedented in terms of how systemic racism not only in policing, but in society in general is getting a focus that we haven’t seen before. How did it feel to be honored in that way?
Jean Boler:Well, it felt very humbling and very good. And you don’t know, when I was working on that, there were a lot of factions and a lot of people who would be unhappy with some stage of it, a lot of times the police department. And the police department even gave me a little plaque too thanking me for my service, even though a lot of times I think they wished I would have not been involved at all. So yeah, it felt like it was a really great way to wrap up the years that I had been there.
Larry Schaefer: Do you feel like this is an issue that we can make progress on nationally as a country?
Jean Boler: Oh yeah. I think all it takes is people who are committed, and we have a lot of people who are committed. And it is something that the community really needs to take hold of because the city government and the police department will not do it on their own. There’s no reason for them to do it on their own, but that’s very important, the demonstrations that happened after George Floyd was killed and all around the country. That’s what makes change. And I do think it’s coming. I can’t see us reversing from where we’ve started now. It’ll be a pendulum swing, probably they’ll … like everything else and there’ll be some backlash. But we’re going in the right direction.
The Next Steps Toward Social Justice for Jean Boler
Larry Schaefer: Good. What are you going to miss about the practice of law?
Jean Boler: Well, just being involved in moving the needle forward, moving things forward by using legal skills, whether it be working for a city, or working on a big case or working on a little case. It feels really good when you can get a good result for your client or you can get a good decision that feels like it’s going to make changes for not just your clients, but others. That’s a great feeling. But also, I’m going to do a lot of volunteer work. I feel like it’s good at this point to explore some other ways besides legal arguments of trying to be helpful in society.
Larry Schaefer: Well, that’s a great segue to my last question, Jean. What are you looking forward to in terms of the next chapter of your life in retirement?
Jean Boler: Yeah. Well, I’m looking to some very long sleep filled nights. And time to work cooperatively with people on political issues. I used to be looking forward to traveling, but I’m not sure when we’re going to do that again.
Larry Schaefer: Yeah. Hopefully, eventually.
Jean Boler: Luckily we bought a tent last year, so if we need to we’ll use it…I really miss our daughter who’s out in California. And I just had another friend of mine that was going to visit her daughter in Seattle and they were driving out. And so I was thinking, “Yeah, good thing we got that tent. We’re just going to pack up and make our slow ambling way across the country.”
Larry Schaefer: Well, Jean, I’m sure that this next chapter will come with a lot of challenges and accomplishments as well. Whatever you put your mind toward, whatever energy you can bring to something is always going to be positive. I can tell you it’s been the great privilege of my career to be mentored by you and work with you. So we at Schaefer Halleen wish you nothing but the best. We know we will stay in contact, whether you like it or not.
Jean Boler: I like it.
Larry Schaefer: So Congratulations, and all the honors you’ve received have been so well-deserved.
Jean Boler: Thank you, Larry. It’s been great working with you.
Larry Schaefer: Thank you.