The New York State Division of Human Rights recently awarded substantial damages to a corrections officer who alleged that she suffered a hostile work environment and that her supervisor turned a blind eye to what was going on. The recommended findings of fact, opinion and decision, and order in Lora Abbott Seabury v. Rensselaer County et al. is here.
Hostile Work Environment
First, the Division found that the complainant met her burden of proving a hostile work environment:
Complainant established that she was subjected to harassing conduct of a sexual nature by a clique of fellow officers, including other sergeants on a daily basis. The offensive conduct was frequent, severe and reprehensible. The under-the-breath remarks, making rat like noises as she neared, being called bitch and whore, are all actions designed to intimidate, ridicule and insult an individual. The actors, including [defendant Richard] Fenton, had a reputation for being bullies and this conduct perfectly reflects that designation. Once the terms “bitch” and “whore” are added to the mix, the harassment became sexual harassment. That such conduct was conduced within the confines of a secured facility, the County Jail, where persons either accused of or convicted of violating the law are incarcerated, makes the conduct by fellow correction officers even more intimidating, disturbing and insulting.
However, according to the Division, her direct supervisor’s indifference was the linchpin of her claim:
It is [supervisor] Smith’s indifference to the conduct to which Complainant was subjected daily that leads to liability on the part of the employer. Not only did that indifference violate the Respondents’ policies, it permitted the sexually harassing and intimidating conduct to continue daily. it is not enough to simply recommend opening an investigation into [harasser] Fenton’s physical conduct, Smith was familiar with and acknowledged the power of the clique and as supervisor Smith was charged with enforcing Respondents’ policies. Simply as Complainant’s mentor, he might be expected to take such steps to stop the inappropriate and harassing conduct. He did not. As the direct supervisor he was required by Respondents’ policies to take appropriate steps to stop this workplace harassment. He did not. The very individual charged with stopping harassment in the workplace failed Complainant. He left the burden on Complainant to tough it out. to do nothing is to let the harassment continue. The failure to act here by her supervisor, who knew what was going on, condoned the conduct and permitted it to continue.
The Division awarded $183,859.90 in lost wages (plus interest), future lost wages of $262,409.20 (to be modified by potential contractual increases in salary), and emotional damages in the amount of $300,000. It also recognized that the complainant should be compensated for the loss of her pension.
The large emotional distress award was supported by the egregiousness of the harassment, its effect on her, and her supervisor’s indifference:
The word devastating understates the impact on Complainant of the discriminatory conduct endured every day at work. The intensity of the conduct, coupled with the severity of the consequences suffered by this Complainant warrants significant compensatory damages. The abusive working environment was pervasive, occurring multiple times during the work day, and was conducted within a County Jail, a work environment already full of danger and threat. Complainant was subjected to the worst forms of harassment and intimidation. Her supervisors let her down in every way. She declined visibly and suffered what she and her doctors described as a debilitating breakdown. As a result of this conduct, Complainant lost her career. Complainant also lost the security of an excellent pension. Complainant received medical treatment and continues under medical treatment including drug therapy for depression, PTSD, and anxiety. She considered suicide. She feared she would lose her house. She cried both at work and at home, and in stores. She gained weight. She continues to suffer as a result of the conduct.
It thus concluded that here, “where the pecuniary damages are high and the emotional damages are so severe, an award of $300,000 in compensatory damage for the emotional pain and suffering is justified.” It supported this conclusion by reference to cases where emotional distress damages were awarded in amounts of $400,000 and $200,000.
It is noteworthy that the emotional distress award was more than three times the amount of complainant’s salary in her last year of employment.
Finally, characterizing the “deliberate indifference” of complainant’s supervisors to her plight as “inexplicable”, “wanton”, “willful”, and “malicious”, the Division imposed civil fines and penalies in the amount of $90,000.