Attorneys Leslie Lienemann and Celeste Culberth have secured a $3.5M trial victory for a client in a sexual orientation claim, Habberstad v. Country Bankers, Inc., et al.
Steele County Court Awarded Damages and Lifetime Payment to Former Bank CEO Against Shareholders and Banks Who Fired Him Because of His Sexual Orientation.
(OWATONNA, Minnesota. August 9, 2016) -- On Friday, July 29, Steele County District Court Judge Joseph A. Bueltel issued what may be the largest discrimination judgment to any single plaintiff in Minnesota history. Judge Bueltel determined, after a three and a half week trial, that Country Bankers, Inc., Citizens State Bank of Hayfield and Farmers and Merchants State Bank of Blooming Prairie, along with Board members and stockholders that included Stephen Habberstad’s sister and brother-in-law, Susan and Terry Boschetti, and his ex-wife Kimberly Habberstad, fired him because of his sexual orientation.
These banks have been in the Habberstad family for over one hundred years, with leadership passed from Habberstad’s grandfather to his father to him. The Court found that the two banks had done extremely well for the thirty-seven years that Stephen Habberstad led the banks. The banks consistently produced substantial dividends to the stockholders under Stephen Habberstad’s stewardship, even during the 2009 recession and the banks had received favorable ratings from bank regulators.
The Court found that, despite the success of the banks, in 2013, Habberstad’s ex-wife, sister and brother-in-law had him removed as Chairman of the Board and CEO and fired him because of his sexual orientation. Habberstad identifies as gay. In addition to violating the anti-discrimination and retaliation provisions of the Minnesota Human Rights Act, the Court found that Kimberly Habberstad and the Boschettis violated their fiduciary duties to Stephen Habberstad as shareholders in a closely held family corporation.
The Court ordered the Defendants to pay Habberstad back pay, future pay and emotional anguish damages totaling more than $3,500,000, along with attorney fees to be determined, and ordered civil penalties to be paid to the State of Minnesota.
"This judgment fulfills the promise of the Minnesota Human Rights Act—to secure freedom from discrimination," said Leslie Lienemann, one of Habberstad’s attorneys.
"I am extremely grateful and humbled," said Stephen Habberstad. "While it has been a long and difficult struggle, I am heartened by the insight and understanding that Judge Bueltel conveyed in his decision."
Despite being removed from the banks, Habberstad continues to be a shareholder in the banks and states that he has every confidence that the banks will continue to serve its business and agricultural customers. He also hopes that this decision will remind everyone that illegal discrimination in all forms exists and should be vigorously opposed.
"Some people believe that discrimination based on sexual orientation is justified on moral or religious grounds," said Mark Sherinian. "Each of us can believe whatever we want about the issue, but Judge Bueltel has reaffirmed that moral beliefs about sexual orientation can never motivate decisions in the workplace."
"Stephen Habberstad had courage to take this fight all the way," said Habberstad attorney Celeste Culberth. "He had the courage to trust that justice would prevail. And, he had the courage to be open and out about his sexual orientation in his Southern Minnesota community. We are so honored to represent him."