Court Explains Damages in Sexual Harassment/Unpaid Overtime Case Upon Defendant’s Default

In Najnin v. Dollar Mountain, Inc., No. 14CV5758, 2015 WL 6125436 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 25, 2015), the court provides some insight into how damages are determined when a defendant defaults in an unpaid wages/employment discrimination (sexual harassment) case. The court held, among other things, that plaintiff was not entitled to any back pay damages, and to $25,000 in emotional distress damages.

In this case, the plaintiff claimed that the defendant failed to pay her overtime wages in violation of the FLSA and New York Labor Law, and that her supervisor discriminated against and sexually harassed her in violation of Title VII. The defendant neither answered the complaint nor appeared in the action.

The court explained:

When a defendant defaults in an action, the plaintiff’s well pleaded factual allegations are accepted as true, except for those relating to damages. Plaintiff bears the burden of substantiating her claims with evidence to prove the extent of her damages. An inquest into damages may be held on the basis of documentary evidence “as long as [the Court has] ensured that there was a basis for the damages specified in [the] default judgment.

It then proceeded to evaluate plaintiff’ claims for unpaid overtime, back pay, liquidated damages, emotional distress, prejudgment interest, and attorney fees and costs.

The court explained why the plaintiff was not entitled to damages in the form of back pay:

A victim of discrimination, however, has a duty to mitigate back pay damages. This obligation is not an onerous one, and there is no requirement that a plaintiff be successful in obtaining comparable work, only that he or she makes a good faith effort to do so. However, if the plaintiff accepts employment, even if not comparable, the new earning are subtracted from the back pay award. Because Because Najnin fails to demonstrate that she made any attempts to secure employment since she was constructively discharged from Dollar Mountain, an award of back pay is inappropriate.

The court also explained why plaintiff was entitled to $25,000 in emotional distress damages :

To obtain emotional distress damages, a plaintiff must establish actual injury and the award must be “supported by competent evidence” in addition to a plaintiff’s subjective testimony. “Garden variety” emotional distress claims lacking extraordinary circumstances and without medical corroboration generally merit $5,000 to $35,000 awards. Cases with evidence of debilitating and permanent alterations in lifestyle may merit larger awards.

Najnin’s evidence of emotional distress consists of her testimony that she felt extremely uncomfortable, shocked, disgusted and intimidated, and distraught as a result of Defendants’ sexual harassment. She also states that she began taking Xanax to combat stress. Najnin’s allegations of emotional distress are relatively “garden variety,” and are stated as conclusions drawn by Najnin herself. Without any medical documentation, a damages award of $75,000 is inappropriate. This Court finds an award of $25,000 is sufficient to address Najnin’s claim of emotional distress.