When attorney Sheila Engelmeier first heard Ellen Ewald’s story back in 2010, she remembers thinking that it would be easy to reach a quick settlement. Ewald, a Minnesota native who was hired to fill one of two “expert” staff positions at Norway’s new honorary consulate in Minneapolis, turned to Engelmeier after learning that she was earning significantly less than a male counterpart hired at the same time for roughly equivalent duties. After hearing some of the details, Engelmeier was pretty miffed, too.
“She’d been a CEO in Norway for years, one of their top international business women, and she took this job to help the two countries she loves and here’s some guy with one third her experience and nowhere near her skills, and he gets paid 40 percent more,” Engelmeier recalled. “I thought, this is going to be simple. I’ll make six phone calls and this is gonna be resolved. I would have bet my car on it,” she said.
Instead, “they fought us tooth and nail for five years. This was as challenging as any case I’ve handled,” said Engelmeier.
To begin with, it’s simply not easy to sue a sovereign government. A country does not lie awake at night wondering how it will be able to foot its legal bills. That changes the equation when it comes to settlement talks. There were complex legal questions involving foreign jurisdiction issues. And there were practical conundrums, including how, precisely, does one properly serve a lawsuit on “the Kingdom of Norway.”
Even after Engelmeier’s longtime colleague Susanne Fischer cracked that puzzle, another year passed before Norway formally acknowledged receipt of the suit. Discovery produced more than 90,000 pages of documents, many in Norwegian and virtually impossible to search electronically.
When Ewald’s case finally went to trial, Engelemeier handled the opening and closing arguments, as well as many of the direct examinations. Tom Marshall — “the best trial lawyer I’ve ever known,” said Engelmeier — conducted others.
Months after the 11-day bench trial concluded, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Nelson rendered her verdict in 191-page decision. The judge concluded that the government of Norway had indeed violated the Equal Pay Act and awarded Ewald $170,000 for lost wages (with a statutory doubling of the compensatory damages) and $100,000 for emotional distress damages.
That victory proved to be a prelude to the main event, at least in fiscal terms: the fight over attorney fees.
In April, Nelson settled that issue decisively in Ewald’s favor, as well, awarding $2.1 million award in fees and costs. Although a subsequent settlement knocked that figure down a bit (to $1.98 million), it is still thought to be the largest attorney fee award in a gender pay case with a single client.
Despite that, Engelmeier said she still took a haircut, but she hopes that the resolution will prove instructive. “This said to everybody, if you are going to be a big bully in defending a case, be prepared to pay up when it’s all over,” she said.