Court Upholds NYC Commission on Human Rights’ $200k Emotional Distress Damage Award in Sexual Harassment / Constructive Discharge Case

In Automatic Meter Reading Corp. v. New York City, No. 162211/2015, 63 Misc. 3d 1211(A), 2019 N.Y. Slip Op. 50464(U), 2019 WL 1475080 (Sup Ct, Feb. 28, 2019), the court, inter alia, affirmed and enforced the New York City Commission on Human Rights’ finding of sexual harassment-based constructive discharge.

It also upheld the NYCCHR’s award of $200,000 in emotional distress damages, which is what I will discuss here.

While the court did not go into detail regarding the evidence of emotional distress, it did cite plaintiff’s resignation letter in which she – after summarizing the alleged sexual harassment, including her boss’s slapping her buttocks with her umbrella and posting a cartoon of a scantily dressed woman with a caption referring to her – said that he “left [her] in an emotional nervous wreck.”

In the portion of its decision relating to emotional distress damages, the court surveyed the legal landscape:

Petitioners also argue that the NYCCHR’s award of emotional distress damages does not comply with New York law. A complainant who prevails on an employment discrimination claim under the NYCHRL is entitled to recover compensatory damages including damages for emotional distress (see generally Admin. Code § 8-120 [a] [8] ). An award of compensatory damages for mental anguish must be upheld if supported by substantial evidence, and is consistent with similar awards (Matter of ISS Action Sec. v. New York City Commn. on Human Rights, 114 AD3d 943, 944 [2d Dept 2014]; see Matter of Goldberg v. New York State Div. of Human Rights, 85 AD3d at 1168 [award for mental anguish under the NYSHRL). “Deference must be accorded to the assessment of damages by the [NYCCHR], in view of its special experience in weighing the merit and value of mental anguish claims” (Matter of Cutri v. New York City Commn. on Human Rights, 113 AD3d 608, 608 [2d Dept 2014] ). Here, the award for mental anguish was supported by Cardenas’ testimony which was corroborated by medical records (see generally Matter of New York City Tr. Auth. v. State Div. of Human Rights, 78 NY2d 207, 216 [1991]; Belton v. Lal Chicken, Inc., 138 AD3d 609, 611 [1st Dept 2016] [verdict of $ 300,000 in damages for emotional distress reasonable]; Matter of State Div. of Human Rights v. Steve’s Pier One, Inc., 123 AD3d 728 [2d Dept 2014] [award of $ 200,000 plus interest at the rate of 9% per year in compensatory damages for mental anguish and humiliation affirmed]; Salemi v. Gloria’s Tribeca Inc., 115 AD3d 569, 569-570 [1st Dept 2014] [verdict of $ 300,000 in compensatory damages for emotional distress did not materially deviate from awards in similar cases]; Matter of Hartley Catering, Inc. v. New York State Div. of Human Rights, 66 AD3d 1022, 1023-1024 [2d Dept 2009] [$ 300,000 award plus interest for mental anguish “reasonably related to the wrongdoing and [s]upported by substantial evidence” under NYSHRL]; Sier v. Jacobs Persinger & Parker, 276 AD2d 401 [1st Dept 2000] [nonjury trial emotional distress award reduced from $ 250,000 to $ 200,000]; Bryer v. New York City Commn. on Human Rights, 251 AD2d 2, 2 [1st Dept 1998] [affirming Commission’s modified award of compensatory damages for mental anguish from $ 50,000 to $ 100,0000; given extent of complainant’s mental suffering, court found award was not arbitrary and capricious, nor did it constitute an abuse of discretion]; cf. Matter of City of New York v. New York State Div. of Human Rights, 283 AD2d 215, 216 [1st Dept 2001] [modified mental anguish award from $ 100,000 to $ 50,000 where “complainant’s testimony as to the severity and duration of the distress,” was not corroborated or substantiated by “any medical or other objective evidence”] ).

The court concluded that the “NYCCHR’s award of $200,000 … in emotional distress damages is supported by the record and comparable to awards in similar cases.”