September 18, 2018

September 18, 2018

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September 17, 2018

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$13 million awarded in sexual harassment jury trial

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.

Background

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).

Plaintiff Rosanna Mayo-Coleman was represented by Nesenoff & Miltenberg LLP, Goddard Law, and Charny & Wheeler, Attorneys at Law.

Defendant American Sugar Holdings, Inc. was represented by Epstein Becker & Green PC.

Legal analysis

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.

© 2018 Zuckerman Law

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About this Author

Eric Bachman, Discrimination Attorney, Zuckerman Law Firm
Of Counsel

Eric Bachman is Chair of the Discrimination and Retaliation practices at Zuckerman Law and has served in senior positions at the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) and the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.  Bachman’s wins include a $100 million settlement in a disparate impact Title VII class action, a record-setting Whistleblower Protection Act settlement at OSC, and a $16 million class action settlement against a major grocery chain.  Bachman holds extensive litigation experience, including trials in federal and state courts, and has also set important...

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