Akron Jury Awards $70,000 for Sexual Harassment

An Akron Ohio federal court jury awarded $70,000 to an Akron woman who accused her landlord of repeatedly groping her and later evicting her because she would not grant him sexual favors.

After a three-day trial in U.S. District court in Akron, the jury decided that landlord Jim Bellissimo broke fair housing laws through sexual discrimination against Melissa McGill. The jury of six men and two women in U.S. District Judge David Dowd's court also ruled that Bellissimo, 70, had committed assault and battery, according the Cleveland Plain Dealer. McGill's lawyer, Andrew Margolius, said, " This verdict is the highest jury verdict of its kind and only the second fair housing/sexual harassment verdict."

The eight-member jury awarded $20,000 in compensatory damages and $10,000 in punitive damages for the fair housing violation and $40,000 in compensatory damages for assault and battery.

In her testimony, McGill accused Bellissimo of repeatedly groping her after she moved into an Akron apartment in 1992. McGill, 24, said the landlord's acts frightened her but that she hesitated to move out because she had two young children and little money.

She also told of an incident when she agreed to wash windows in another of Bellissimo's properties in exchange for reduced rent. While she worked, McGill said, Bellissimo exposed himself, forced her hand upon his genitals and ejaculated. She also said that he pinched her breast so hard that it bruised. Bellissimo took the stand in his own defense and denied the charges. He said there had been no other complaints by other tenants about sexual harassment.

The Akron Beacon Journal said this opened the door for McGill's attorney, Andrew Margolius, to put two former tenants, Kathy Hoffman and Delores Juriga, on the stand to rebut Bellissimo. The two women testified they had also been sexually harassed by the landlord.

Dowd had earlier prohibited their testimony because court rules forbid allowing a defendant's past actions to be used as proof that he did what he is accused of in a current case. But the testimony was allowed the next day to rebut Bellissimo's testimony.

Lynn Clark, executive director of the Fair Housing Contact Service, praised the verdict. "This was a very difficult case," she said. "And because they are difficult, it prevents a lot of women in these situations from coming forward."

[Mcgill v. Bellissimo, No. 5:93cv1222 (N.D. Ohio 3-10-94)]