Court Remits $750,000 Award for Emotional Distress Damages in Retaliation/Sexual Harassment Case Against Columbia University

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 – in addition to denying defendant’s motion for judgment as a matter of law on plaintiff’s retaliation claim – next evaluated the jury’s damage awards to plaintiff ($750,000 in emotional distress damages, $500,000 in punitive damages).

In this post, I will focus on the court’s evaluation of the jury’s emotional distress damages award. Such damages, non-economic in nature, can be and often are the most significant element of damages in an employment discrimination case.

The court summarized the jury’s award as follows:

After three hours of deliberations, the jury returned a special verdict form awarding Ravina $750,000 in compensatory damages. The verdict form specified that the award was apportioned entirely to “other compensatory damages,” which included loss of reputation or professional standing; emotional or physical pain, suffering, mental anguish, emotional or physical distress, or loss of health; embarrassment or humiliation; and loss of enjoyment of life. The jury awarded Ravina $0 in economic damages for back pay or front pay, thus reflecting the jury’s judgment that Ravina was not entitled to damages for past or future lost earnings, but that she was entitled to damages for reputational and/or emotional harm. Bekaert argues that this award was excessive as compared to the awards granted in other cases involving purely emotional or reputational injuries.

Next, it summarized the basic principles applicable to such awards (paragraphing modified):

Although “[a]wards for mental and emotional distress are inherently speculative … a legal system [nevertheless] has an obligation to ensure that such awards for intangibles be fair, reasonable, predictable, and proportionate.” … In this Circuit, emotional distress awards for cases involving discrimination and retaliation “can generally be grouped into three categories [ ]: garden-variety, significant, and egregious.” … “Garden-variety” claims are those in which “the evidence of mental suffering is generally limited to the testimony of the plaintiff, who describes his or her injury in vague or conclusory terms.” Id. Recent decisions describe such claims as “generally merit[ing] $30,000 to $125,000 awards.” … Significant emotional distress claims, by contrast, “are based on more substantial harm or more offensive conduct, are sometimes supported by medical testimony and evidence, evidence of treatment by a healthcare professional and/or medication, and testimony from other, corroborating witnesses.” … Such claims typically support damages awards ranging from $50,000 to $200,000, though greater awards may be appropriate under some circumstances. … Finally, “egregious emotional distress claims generally involve either outrageous or shocking discriminatory conduct or a significant impact on the physical health of the plaintiff.” … Awards for such claims can far exceed $200,000, with awards of over $1 million reserved for the most egregious cases.

In this case, the court deemed plaintiff’s injuries in the “significant” category, noting:

Ravina claimed during the damages phase that she suffered from insomnia, a herniated disc, anxiety, weight gain, and suicidal thoughts. Tr. 3015, 3027–28. She testified that her situation with Bekaert “was an all-consuming situation that took over [her] life.” Tr. 3029. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Silbert, testified that Ravina suffered from “extreme anxiety, disturbed sleep, disturbed appetite, impaired ability to enjoy usually pleasurable activities, fears, distrust, aversion to social situations, at times she’s felt suicidal, and deep concern about her long-term prospects to achieve success.” Tr. 3140. He explained that Ravina suffered from generalized anxiety disorder, and that she also experienced symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress. Tr. 3141–42. Dr. Silbert further testified that Ravina’s symptoms were “severe” and that her prognosis was “poor.” …

The court found that, as in comparable cases,[1]Particularly, Lore v. City of Syracuse, 670 F.3d 127 (2d Cir. 2012), Emamian v. Rockefeller Univ., 2018 WL 2849700 (SDNY 2018), and Albunio v. City of New York, 889 N.Y.S.2d 4 (1st Dept. 2009). this case “involved significant and long-standing emotional distress, the evidence of which included not only plaintiff’s testimony, but also the corroborating account of a medical professional” and that “the compensatory damages award here accounted for the reputational injury that Ravina may have sustained in her professional community, in addition to emotional harm.”

Specifically, plaintiff “presented evidence of substantial reputational harm—testifying that the emails in which Bekaert called her, inter alia, an ‘evil bitch’ and ‘very crazy and sick’ were widely distributed to prominent members of her professional community.” The court cited other cases in which courts, “in order to account for loss of reputation[,] permitted compensatory damages awards exceeding the typical range for emotional harm.”

In sum, based on the facts and the case law, the court found that the jury’s award of $750,000 was excessive, and that $500,000 was the “maximum amount that would be upheld … as not excessive”, and granted defendant’s motion for a remittitur of the compensatory damages award.

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1. Particularly, Lore v. City of Syracuse, 670 F.3d 127 (2d Cir. 2012), Emamian v. Rockefeller Univ., 2018 WL 2849700 (SDNY 2018), and Albunio v. City of New York, 889 N.Y.S.2d 4 (1st Dept. 2009).