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Complex Litigator Wins Record Amount in Sexual Harassment Case

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Swansea, ILAs the firm's Web site says, Cates Law was built on the reputation of attorney Judy Cates—and no wonder. Cates and co-attorney Benedict Morelli, brought in from New York by Cates to help during the trial, recently won a landmark $95 million in a sexual harassment suit. Their client was a 20-year-old woman who endured a year of lewd behavior, unwanted sexual touching and was finally sexually assaulted by her manager at Aaron Rents, a rent-to-own retailer in southern Illinois.

Ashley Alford began experiencing unwanted sexual advances from her boss at Aaron Rents in 2005. Although she complained to the company's sexual harassment hotline, Aaron Rents made no attempt to stop Richard Moore from touching Alford's breasts, pinching her, making sexual suggestions and displaying his penis to her. In October of 2006, Richard Moore stood over Alford in the back of the store, knocked his penis against her head, pushed her to the ground and masturbated as he held her down.

The court ordered Aaron Rents to pay Ashley Alford a record $95 million. The first $15 million is for damages suffered by Alford, the remaining $80 million is for punitive damages due the retailer's failure to deal with complaints.

"She was glad that somebody finally believed her story," says Cates, referring to the jury's endorsement of events. "She got to tell her story and the jury agreed with her."

"I hate to speak for the jury, but I think the $80 million dollar award was due to the prolonged claim," says a very forthright and down-to to-earth Cates. "The company would not accept responsibility, and I think from their news releases now, they are still refusing to accept responsibility."

Attorney Cates likely deserves a lot of credit for the outcome. For four years, Cates fought a knockdown, drag 'em out fight for documents in the examination for discovery process. Even the company policy on sexual harassment was difficult to obtain.

"Those kinds of things were just very difficult to get continuously, so it was a long battle for us to get factual information," says Cates. "They said they had cameras and then when it came time to produce the video, one was missing—it was long journey."

"Our client claimed she called their sexual harassment hotline, but the company denied that," says Cates. "We eventually had to go to court to get phone bills, and once we got the phone bills for the company, it confirmed she had called the company."

Aaron Rents has recently been rebranded as Aarons. The company Web site says the allegations made are "completely inconsistent with everything the company believes in and stands for," and it will appeal the Alford decision.

A case like Alford's is expensive to pursue and requires a determined lawyer.

"That's what I do," says Cates. "The sign on my door says 'complex litigation' so that's what I do. I do the messy stuff," she says with perfect clarity.


Judy Cates is a trial lawyer with 30 years of courtroom experience. She began her career as an assistant State's Attorney, prosecuting rape, murder and child abuse cases. In 1982, she began a private law practice. She handles personal injury litigation, class actions, commercial litigation and other kinds of complex lawsuits.

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