A federal jury awarded over $13 million in damages to a single plaintiff in a sexual harassment/hostile work environment case brought under Title VII and New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL).
The award, however, is likely to be reduced since the jury awarded more than $11 million for punitive damages under Title VII. Under the statutory caps on damages that apply to Title VII cases, the punitive damages award will likely be reduced to $300,000. And the NYSHRL does not provide for punitive damages.
The jury also awarded $1.7 million for compensatory/emotional distress damages and the NYSHRL allows for uncapped compensatory damages. Thus, because the plaintiff can recover these damages under the NYSHRL, the Title VII caps may not apply and could allow the plaintiff to keep the full award.
Plaintiff Mayo-Coleman has worked for defendant American Sugar Holdings for 30 years, most recently as a Storeroom Assistant.
Her sex harassment claim centered around inappropriate conduct by her immediate supervisor that began in 2008. According to one of the judge’s pretrial decisions, the harassment included lewd comments such as:
- “Damn, you look good”
- “I would tap that ass if you wasn’t so old”
- “I would tap that ass if you wasn’t an old coon”
- “I would tell you to go F yourself but you might go do it”
- “Your boobs is getting big”
In addition, Plaintiff Mayo-Coleman said that her supervisor:
- made her do the cleaning projects because she is a woman
- refused to let her do other jobs because she is a woman
- disciplined her more harshly than male colleagues
The jury found in favor of Mayo-Coleman and, as discussed above, awarded her $1.7 million in compensatory damages and over $11 million in punitive damages (which almost certainly will be reduced to $300,000 by the judge per Title VII’s statutory cap on damages).
Defendant American Sugar Holdings, Inc. was represented by Epstein Becker & Green PC.
To prove a hostile work environment claim, a sexual harassment plaintiff must prove that the underlying acts were severe or pervasive. A single act of severe harassment, such as a sexual assault, is actionable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
To determine whether harassment violates Title VII, courts consider the following factors:
- the frequency of the discriminatory conduct;
- its severity;
- whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and
- whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance.
The employer may automatically be liable if a supervisor harasses an employee that causes an adverse action like termination, lost wages, or a suspension.
If a supervisor creates a hostile work environment for an employee, then the employer will escape liability only if it can prove:
- it reasonably tried to prevent and promptly correct the harassing behavior; and
- the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities offered by the employer
If a non-supervisory employee harasses another employee, then the employer will be liable for the harassment if the employer knew, or should have known, about the hostile work environment and failed to promptly correct it.
In Mayo-Coleman’s case, the jury determined that she suffered a hostile work environment and that American Sugar Holdings failed to prevent and correct the harassment by her supervisor.
Hiring a proven and effective advocate is critical to obtaining the maximum recovery in an employment discrimination case. Eric Bachman, Chair of the Firm’s Discrimination Practice, has substantial experience litigating precedent-setting individual and class action discrimination cases. His wins include a $100 million settlement in a disparate impact Title VII class action and a $16 million class action settlement against a major grocery chain. Having served as Special Litigation Counsel in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and as lead or co-counsel in numerous jury trials, Bachman is trial-tested and ready to fight for you to obtain the relief that you deserve.
Bachman writes frequently on topics related to promotion discrimination, harassment, and other employment discrimination issues at the Glass Ceiling Discrimination Blog, which the ABA Journal recently named a top legal blog.
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