Court Remits Jury Award of $1.7M to $500,000 for Emotional Damages in Sexual Harassment Case

In Mayo-Coleman v. American Sugar Holdings, Inc., 14-cv-79, 2018 WL 2684100 (S.D.N.Y. June 5, 2018), the court, inter alia, held that a $1.7 million jury verdict in plaintiff’s favor on her sexual harassment/hostile work environment claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New York State Human Rights Law should be subject to a remittitur to $500,000. As a result, plaintiff was given the option of electing between (1) having a new trial on damages or (2) accepting the reduced amount.

Since the $1.7 million award was allocated between the NYS Human Rights Law ($1,699,999) and Title VII ($1), the court evaluated the award’s excessiveness under New York law.

The court gives us a bit of a primer on the standard of review in general and for evaluating emotional distress damage awards under the NYS Human Rights Law:

Under New York law, a court “shall determine that an award is excessive or inadequate if it deviates materially from what would be reasonable compensation.” N.Y. C.P.L.R. § 5501(c). This “deviates materially” standard is different from the “shock the conscience” standard for reviewing jury verdicts in federal claims, and it allows courts to more closely scrutinize jury awards. See Gasperini v. Ctr. for Humanities, 518 U.S. 415, 422-24 (1996). “To determine whether a jury award is excessive within the meaning of § 5501(c), New York courts compare it with awards in similar cases.” Stampf, 761 F.3d at 204. In making this comparison, courts consider “the duration of a complainant’s condition, its severity or consequences, any physical manifestations, and any medical treatment.” In re New York City Transit Auth., 577 N.E.2d 40, 55 (N.Y. 1991). Further, emotional distress damages must be “reasonably related to the wrongdoing” of the defendant. Id.

For claims arising under the NYSHRL, “the range of acceptable damages for emotional distress in adverse employment action cases lacking extraordinary circumstances seems to be from around $30,000 to $125,000.” Watson v. E.S. Sutton, Inc., No. 02-cv-2739, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31578, at *46-47 (S.D.N.Y. 2005). The cases in which courts permit higher damages typically involve medical treatment and physical manifestation of symptoms such as “continued shock, nightmares, sleeplessness, weight loss, or humiliation, or of an inability to apply for a new position or to enjoy life in general.”

Applying the law, the court explained:

This case seems to fit within the category of cases with such extraordinary circumstances. Plaintiff is a fifty-nine year old woman who works in Defendant’s sugar factory. (Tr. 113:20–116:14.) From 2008 to 2013, her immediate supervisor was Tyrone Smith. (Tr. 127:6-20, 226:25–227:3.) Plaintiff testified that Smith repeatedly harassed Plaintiff by telling her that “he would tap that ass if [she] wasn’t so old,” “[her] boobs got big,” and that she was “an old coon.” (Tr. 183:6-7, 133:24, 182:21-22.) Smith “was constantly leering” at Plaintiff, “licking his lips,” and would “come next to [her] and start breathing real heavy like he’s having sex.” (Tr. 135:3-8.) Three to four times a month, Smith would call Plaintiff into his office, instruct her to close the door, force her to stand next to him, and subjected her to unwelcome verbal and physical harassment, such as smacking her on her “rear end.” (Tr. 150:11–153:11, 175:1-20.)

Plaintiff testified that she experienced severe emotional distress during this time: she stopped eating; she lost weight; her hair fell out; her stomach was tied in knots; and she had migraine headaches from the time she woke up until the time she went to sleep. (Tr. 184:14–185:6.) Plaintiff became depressed, which impacted her relationship with her boyfriend of 12 years and caused them to break up. (Tr. 205:15–206:13.) From June 6 to August 13, 2012, Plaintiff took medical leave from work upon her doctor’s orders that she was “extremely depressed” due to “work stressors.” (Tr. 203:3-12, 211:10-17; Pl.’s Exs. 12, 16.) During this leave, for the first time in her life, Plaintiff saw a psychiatrist and a therapist, and she began taking psychotropic medications. (Tr. 203:3–205:14, 228:20–229:13.)

Plaintiff’s testimony was supported by three of her co-workers who testified that Plaintiff complained to them about Smith’s behavior and Plaintiff was visibly distressed by it, and by contemporaneous handwritten notes that Plaintiff made in notebooks which she maintained beginning in 2012. (Tr. 33:2–36:17; Tr. 47:21–54:8; Tr. 85:5–90:21; Tr. 180:14–182:20; Pl.’s Ex. 25.) Plaintiff’s expert psychiatric witness, Dr. Robert Goldstein, diagnosed her with major depressive disorder, which is “one of the most serious psychiatric conditions.” (Tr. 311:9-19.) Dr. Goldstein also testified that there was a direct causal link between Smith’s behavior and the onset of this disorder. (Tr. 312:9–313:3.) Given Plaintiffs medical treatment, leave from work, psychiatric diagnosis, physical manifestation of symptoms, breakdown in relationships, and corroborating lay and expert testimony, the Court finds that this case contains circumstances that would be considered “extraordinary” under New York law.

Factoring into the court’s analysis was plaintiff’s testimony that she had been raped at the age of 14, and that the harasser’s conduct made her feel “violated all over again.” Since – as the court ruled in connection with ruling on defendant’s motions in limine and as the jury was instructed – a defendant “takes the plaintiff as he finds her.” Therefore, explained the court, “[p]laintiffs increased susceptibility to emotional distress from sexual harassment due to her previous experience as a rape victim could be considered when calculating compensatory damages.”

After surveying the case law regarding emotional distress damages in sexual harassment cases, the court found that $500,000 was an appropriate award in this case.