Court Explains $1.25M Emotional Distress Damage Award in Sexual Harassment/Hostile Work Environment Case

In Lent v. CCNH d/b/a Cortland Care Center, decided November 16, 2015, the Northern District of New York awarded plaintiff damages following defendant’s default. As set forth in the court’s June 1, 2015 decision granting plaintiff’s motion for a default judgment (which I wrote about here),

In this sexual harassment case, plaintiff alleged (among other things) that, when she was 16, her 43 year-old co-worker Jeffrey Greene “repeatedly cornered her, locked her in a closet on CCNH’s premises, and forced her to touch his genitals, perform oral sex, and engage in sexual intercourse on a daily basis from October 24, 2007 until January of 2009.”

After summarizing the evidence relating to damages (testimony from the plaintiff and her counselors, parents, and boyfriend), the court assessed plaintiff’s claim for damages.

Initially, the court explained that a plaintiff who wins a default judgment must still prove damages:

When a default is entered, the defendant is deemed to have admitted all of the well-pleaded factual allegations in the complaint pertaining to liability. While a default judgment constitutes an admission of liability, the quantum of damages remains to be established by proof unless the amount is liquidated or susceptible of mathematical computation. [E]ven upon default, a court may not rubber-stamp the non-defaulting party’s damages calculation, but rather must ensure that there is a basis for the damages that are sought. The burden is on the plaintiff to establish its entitlement to recovery. While ‘the court must ensure that there is a basis for the damages specified in a default judgment, it may, but need not, make the determination through a hearing.

The court next evaluated plaintiff’s claims for emotional distress damages, economic damages, costs, and attorney fees. Here I’ll focus on the court’s decision to award the plaintiff $1,250,000 in emotional distress damages, which is the bulk of the damages awarded.

From the decision:

The undisputed evidence in this case illustrates a myriad of grounds for Plaintiff to recover damages for her prolonged pain and suffering. Starting when she was sixteen years old, Plaintiff was locked in a closet, sexually assaulted, and raped by her forty-three year old coworker on a daily basis for a fourteen month period. Plaintiff was threatened and told that she could not report the criminal acts and that any harm to herself or others was entirely her fault. These threats and continued abuse led Plaintiff to attempt suicide on January 22, 2009. After this incident, CCNH was informed that its employee had sexually assaulted Plaintiff, yet told Plaintiff not to file a complaint and did nothing to remedy the situation. Rather, Plaintiff’s supervisor told Plaintiff that she should quit her job if she had a problem with her coworkers.

This heinous course of conduct has manifested itself in several psychological and emotional conditions that Plaintiff has had to suffer through, and which will continue to burden her for the foreseeable future. Plaintiff struggles with depression and anxiety, she has recurrent nightmares which result in loss of sleep, she fears trusting her superiors in employment settings, she is unable to properly express her intimacy with others, especially males, and she struggles to effectively communicate with others. Plaintiff suffered from a major depressive episode after being assaulted and continues to experience symptoms from PTSD. The PTSD has the potential to be exacerbated by future triggers, which may require additional medical treatment and potentially lead to additional employment and relationship struggles. Ultimately, [Plaintiff] was physically, psychologically, emotionally, socially, neurologically, occupationally and financially harmed by [CCNH’s] actions. This harm will undoubtedly persist for years into her adulthood and will put her at risk for future complications for the course of her life.

In calculating non-economic damages, the Court reviewed several cases with similar factual postures of ongoing sexual assault of a minor, inaction by employers to correct abusive work settings, and documented psychological conditions resulting from depression and PTSD. … In light of the awards in similar cases, the ongoing nature of the sexual assaults in this case, and the evidence of lasting psychological impairments, the Court awards $1,250,000.00 against Defendant CCNH in favor of Plaintiff for her past and future pain and suffering under her NYHRL claim.

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