Court Remits $200K Emotional Distress Damage Award to $75K in Hostile Work Environment/Sexual Harassment Case

In Legg v. Ulster County, et al, 2017 WL 3668777 (N.D.N.Y. 09-cv-00550 Aug. 24, 2017) (J. Scullin), the court – after upholding a jury verdict in plaintiff’s favor on her Title VII hostile work environment/sexual harassment claim[1]I discussed this aspect of the case here. – held that the damages awarded by the jury to compensate plaintiff for emotional distress ($200,000) was excessive.

The court explained that defendant effectively asked the court for a “remittitur”, which “in effect[] is a statement by the court that it is shocked by the jury’s award of damages[.]” Remittitur gives the plaintiff a choice “between reduction of an excessive verdict and a new trial.”

As to her emotional distress, plaintiff testified, inter alia, that: after she began working together with Officer Divorl (the alleged harasser) five nights a week she “began to withdraw from” her life and her children; she began having marital issues because she couldn’t talk to her husband; she became depressed and anxious; she “had a hard time going to day-to-day life”; she “hated coming to work”; and she was prescribed anti-anxiety medication.

Upon surveying the case law, the court found that this case was more analogous to MacMillan v. Millennium Broadway Hotel, 873 F. Supp. 2d 546, 560 (S.D.N.Y. 2012) (in which the court remitted a compensatory damage award from $125,000 to $30,000) than it was to Phillips v. Bowen, 278 F.3d 103 (2d Cir. 2002), upon which plaintiff relied (in which the Second Circuit upheld a $400,000 jury award).

The court noted:

Plaintiff … produced only vague testimony regarding her alleged emotional distress. Importantly, there was no testimony from a medical professional or any other person to corroborate Plaintiff’s allegations. Nor did she establish that the medication she took was directly related to the hostile work environment she suffered. Thus, none of the quintessential calling cards of a significant emotional distress claim are present in Plaintiff’s case.

This case was a so-called “garden variety” case, in which “the evidence usually is limited to the testimony of the plaintiff, who describes the emotional distress in vague or conclusory terms, presents minimal or no evidence of medical treatment, and offers little detail of the duration, severity, or consequences of the condition.”

Judge Scullin concluded:

Plaintiff only testified that she suffered emotional distress on account of Divorl’s conduct. She did not attribute any emotional distress to the pornographic magazines or screensavers; nor did she testify that she suffered any emotional injury with respect to Divorl’s conduct in 2005. In sum, because the jury’s award of $200,000 was clearly excessive, the Court grants Defendant’s motion for a new trial with respect to Plaintiff’s Title VII claim unless Plaintiff agrees to a remittitur reducing the award to $75,000.

1 I discussed this aspect of the case here.
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