Court Remits $2M Hostile Work Environment / Retaliation Verdict to $1.25M

In Tulino v. City of New York, 15-cv-7106 (JSR), 2019 WL 3810975 (S.D.N.Y. 2019) – an employment discrimination / hostile work environment case – a jury awarded plaintiff damages for emotional distress in the amounts of $1.5 million for her hostile work environment claim, and $500,000 for her retaliation claim. The court, employing the procedural device of “remittitur”, held that these sums were excessive, and that awards for $1 million and $250,000, respectively, were more appropriate.[1]For specifics regarding the underlying facts, the reader is directed to review the court’s opinion.

First, the court summarized the legal standards applicable to such damages:

The Court is cognizant that emotional distress damages – the only kind at issue in this case – are inherently difficult to measure, and the risk of disproportionate jury verdicts motivated by sympathy is therefore high. Courts in this circuit frequently employ a rough framework dividing emotional distress cases into one of three categories. “Garden variety” cases are those where the evidence of harm is limited to the plaintiff’s uncorroborated testimony. “Significant” cases include testimony by a medical professional or other evidence of treatment. “Egregious” cases feature truly shocking conduct or an especially severe impact on the plaintiff’s health. See, e.g., Bouveng v. NYG Capital LLC, 175 F. Supp. 3d 280, 328 (S.D.N.Y. 2016).

The court found that this case qualified as “significant” and warranted a substantial damages award, noting that plaintiff presented a medical expert (Dr. Laurence Westreich), who diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks, and major depression.

However, the court found that the actual award was “excessive”:

Nonetheless, in comparison with other comparable cases the current award appears excessive. It is true that in a somewhat similar case, involving race-based workplace discrimination that resulted in post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and panic disorder, the Second Circuit affirmed an award of $1,320,000. See Turley v. ISG Lackawanna, Inc., 774 F.3d 140, 163 (2d Cir. 2014). However, the court noted that the award was at the upper end of the permissible range, id., and here the award is substantially larger. The Court concludes that the present award is too high and must be reduced to be more in line with Turley, let alone other cases. See, e.g., Zeno v. Pine Plains Cent. School Dist., 702 F.3d 655, 673 (2d Cir. 2012) (affirming award of $1,000,000 in school harassment case). Accordingly, the damages award shall be reduced to $1,250,000, comprising $1,000,000 for the hostile work environment claim and $250,000 for the retaliation claim.

1 For specifics regarding the underlying facts, the reader is directed to review the court’s opinion.
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