Jury Verdict of Retaliation for Complaints of Sexual Harassment Against Columbia University Professor Upheld

In Ravina v. Columbia University and Geert Bekaert, 16-cv-2137, 2019 WL 1450449 (S.D.N.Y. March 31, 2019), a sexual harassment/retaliation case, the court denied defendant’s motion for judgment as a matter of law on plaintiff’s retaliation claim, but granted its motion for remittitur as to the jury’s damage awards for compensatory/emotional distress damages and punitive damages.

Here, the jury found that plaintiff failed to prove that either Defendant had discriminated against her, but that the individual defendant, Bekaert, had retaliated against her for accusing him of sexual harassment. It awarded plaintiff $750,000 in compensatory damages against both defendants, and $500,000 in punitive damages against the individual defendant only.

In this post I will discuss the court’s assessment of plaintiff’s retaliation claim, asserted under the New York City Human Rights Law.

The court summarized its conclusion on this point as follows:

[T]he evidence presented at trial was sufficient for the jury to rule in Ravina’s favor on her retaliation claim. To prove a claim for retaliation under the NYCHRL, a “plaintiff must show that she took an action opposing her employer’s discrimination, and that, as a result, the employer engaged in conduct that was reasonably likely to deter a person from engaging in such action.” Mihalik v. Credit Agricole Cheuvreux N. Am., Inc., 715 F.3d 102, 112 (2d Cir. 2013) (internal citations omitted); N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 8-107(7) (prohibiting retaliation “in any manner … reasonably likely to deter a person from engaging in protected activity”). Here, there is no dispute that Ravina took actions opposing Bekaert’s alleged sexual harassment—both by complaining to the Columbia administration and by filing this lawsuit.

Here, plaintiff alleged, successfully at trial, that defendant engaged in two forms of retaliation against her, namely, stalling his work on their joint papers, and sending disparaging emails about her to members of their professional community.

The court rejected defendant’s arguments that, for example, certain emails were sent before he learned that plaintiff’s complaints about him concerned sexual harassment and that other emails were sent not in response to plaintiff’s filing of the lawsuit but rather in response to media reports about the case, finding that such “arguments turn on [defendant’]s interpretation of contested evidence and ask this Court to — impermissibly — substitute its judgment for that of the jury.”