Citing Introduction of Hearsay, Court Orders New Trial in Sexual Harassment Case

In Qorrolli v. Metropolitan Dental Associates, D.D.S. – 225 Broadway, P.C. et al, 18-cv-6836 (DLC), 2022 WL 17689836 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 15, 2022), the court granted the defendant’s motion for a new trial, primarily on the ground that the jury’s verdict was primarily based on hearsay (which, as one legal scholar has noted, is a “kind” of evidence).

From the decision:

A significant portion of the plaintiff’s case was based on inadmissible and prejudicial hearsay. The plaintiff testified repeatedly that Orantes harassed other women, even though she did not witness this harassment herself. She repeatedly asserted that Orantes wanted her to give in to sexual advances, and that he retaliated against her for refusing to do so, even though she testified to no statement in which this was made an explicit condition of Orantes’ treatment of her. She shared with the jury, and frequently referenced, an anonymous fax to MDA offices accusing Orantes of sexual misconduct, among other forms of impropriety. She testified to a conversation with a coworker in which the coworker suggested that Orantes wanted the plaintiff to give in to his advances. And both the plaintiff and her mother asserted, without foundation, that another employee was fired because Orantes was in a sexual relationship with her, and therefore allowed her to work lax hours.

These remarks were not merely stray comments during otherwise relevant testimony; they comprised the core of the plaintiff’s case. The plaintiff prepared blown-up copies of the fax to show to the jury. Her attorney frequently posed questions about Orantes’s harassment of other women or about his state of mind, which the plaintiff could only answer with speculation or hearsay. And he relied on these statements in his closing argument, telling the jury — multiple times, and despite repeated interjections from the Court — that the jury had heard testimony of Orantes’s sexual harassment of several other women.

By contrast, the plaintiff’s testimony regarding her own harassment was, in comparison, minimal. She identified two specific incidents: one in which Orantes brushed against or touched her thigh in an elevator, and another in which he kissed her cheek in a private room. The plaintiff also stated that Orantes frequently took her to a room, shut the door behind them, and harassed her in this manner. But the plaintiff failed to describe any other incident with particularity, and could not identify the dates or even the years on which the two specifically described incidents took place. In total, the plaintiff provided minimal direct evidence from which the jury could infer that she was sexually harassed, but large volumes of inadmissible hearsay accusing Orantes of sexually harassing other women. As the plaintiff’s trial strategy became apparent, the Court explained its concern to the parties about the integrity of the trial and whether the limiting instructions provided to the jury would be sufficient “to capture and correct the misuse of evidence.”

The court further held that the jury’s awards of $575,000 for emotional distress and $2 million for punitive damages were excessive. The court elected to order a new trial without remittitur, since the jury’s award was “so disproportionate to an award of reasonable damages.”

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