Dec 31, 1999 Year In Review

What Damages Cap? Significant Jury Awards in Employment Cases in 1999

The federal Civil Rights Act of 1991 amended Title VII to provide for a right to trial by jury, and to provide for recovery of punitive and compensatory damages. However, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 also established for a cap on damages (including punitive damages) ranging from $50,000 for small employers to $300,000 for employers with more than 500 employees. While these damages caps also apply to cases brought pursuant to the Americans With Disabilities Act, they do not apply to federal age discrimination cases, race discrimination cases brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1981, or to cases filed under state or local laws prohibiting employment discrimination.

A number of multimillion-dollar jury verdicts were announced in employment cases in 1999. To be sure, some of these verdicts have been or will be successfully challenged by employers, whether because the verdicts exceed the federal damages cap described above, the verdicts are unsupported by the evidence, or for other reasons. But this does not detract from the important lessons to be learned from large jury awards: the cost of challenging these awards, together with the virtual impossibility of counteracting the negative publicity which results from big jury verdicts, makes the employer’s ultimate vindication seem far less meaningful than the initial splash created by the jury’s conclusions.

The following is a brief description of some of the largest jury verdicts awarded in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and California employment cases during the past year.

New York Jury Verdicts

In May 1999, a federal jury in New York awarded $1.28 million to a plaintiff fired by McGraw-Hill after he told a supervisor he was HIV positive. McGraw-Hill claimed the plaintiff quit; he countered that he was forced out. The jury found that the plaintiff was terminated because of his HIV-positive status in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”), although it rejected his claims that he was denied reasonable accommodation and subjected to a hostile environment because of his disability.

In July 1999, another New York jury faced with a disability discrimination claim under the ADA awarded $1.5 million to a dock worker who lost his leg in a car accident and was barred by his employer, Yellow Freight Systems, from returning to work with a prosthetic leg. Yellow Freight contended that, if returned to work, the plaintiff posed an imminent threat of injury to himself because he might develop gangrene or other problems. The jury award included $1 million in punitive damages.

New Jersey Jury Verdicts

A New Jersey jury awarded $7.3 million (including $2,500,000 in punitive damages) to television news anchor Sara Lee Kessler in April 1999 for disability discrimination and retaliation, while rejecting her age, sex and religious discrimination claims. Kessler claimed she was demoted from a weekend news anchor position after she raised discrimination complaints internally (which complaints she claimed were not investigated), and that she was fired for subsequently filing a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC. Kessler, an orthodox Jew, claimed she was denied the religious accommodation of leaving early on Fridays, and that she was denied other accommodations she sought for a three-week period after she fractured her coccyx in an on-the-job injury. Specifically, she asked for an eight-hour work day during the three weeks following the injury, and she asked to take brief periods off to visit a physical therapist in the area. She also requested a doughnut seat in the news van to alleviate her pain. The news station forced her to take a one month leave of absence instead, contending that if she could not fully perform her job, she should go on worker’s compensation until she was completely recovered.

In May 1999, a New Jersey jury awarded $2,225,000 to a paraplegic police dispatcher who alleged that during a ten-year period, he was denied reasonable accommodations for his disability in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. The specific accommodation he sought was the placement of a lift in the two-step area between the dispatch room and the squad room and detective offices. He requested the accommodation after someone lifting him over the steps tripped, causing the plaintiff to fall out of his wheelchair and suffer two herniated cervical disks, requiring two fusion surgeries to repair. The employer’s failure to provide the requested accommodation caused the plaintiff humiliation and physical discomfort, as he was forced at times to leave his wheelchair and physically drag his body over the steps. In addition, because he was confined to a wheelchair, the plaintiff could not reach the towel dispenser in the men’s room at work and was forced to dry his hands on his own clothes. Plaintiff was awarded $1,100,000 for these two claims alone. He also fractured a leg when he attempted to navigate a step at the exit, which the plaintiff contended should have been leveled or modified to provide unrestricted access. Plaintiff also claimed that he was effectively denied the opportunity to post for a position for which he was qualified because the job was posted in the squad room, where he was effectively denied access due to the employer’s failure to install a list as he had requested. This case was subsequently settled for $1,000,000 plus installation of a lift on the doorway of the dispatcher’s room.

Also in May 1999, another New Jersey state court jury awarded $3,750,000 — including $3,000,000 in punitive damages — to a male corrections officer who claimed he was subjected to sexual harassment and retaliation. The case is among the first nationwide in which a jury has found that a woman sexually harassed a man. The harassment began in approximately 1990 when a female coworker began following the plaintiff at work and making romantic and sexual overtures toward him. When he rebuked her, she began acting in a hostile manner, including making insulting comments to the plaintiff in front of superiors (who did nothing to stop this harassment, according to the plaintiff). The plaintiff complained repeatedly to his superiors, and he eventually filed an internal discrimination complaint with the Department of Corrections. This internal complaint was ultimately dismissed and the harassment continued. The plaintiff wrote numerous letters to superiors thereafter in which he complained of continued harassment (and the prison superintendent wrote various memos advising that the harassment was continuing and was “out of control”), but no action was taken in response. The plaintiff allegedly suffered emotional distress, although he did not seek treatment. The trial court refused to reduce the size of his monetary award, and it additionally granted the plaintiff’s request for equitable relief, ordering a six-month suspension of the alleged harasser.

Connecticut Jury Verdicts

In January 1999, following a two-month long trial, a jury in Hartford, Connecticut awarded $12.7 million to a female Chemistry professor who sued Trinity College for sex and age discrimination and breach of contract after she was denied tenure and ultimately fired. The verdict was surprising to many — both for its size (the largest award in a tenure case to date) and because academic tenure decisions are usually accorded great deference by courts. The award included over $670,000 for back and front pay, $2 million for sex discrimination, $4 million for emotional distress, and $6 million in punitive damages. The jury, comprised of four women and two men, rejected the plaintiff’s claim of age discrimination.

A second plaintiff hit a similar home run with a Connecticut jury in January 1999. Janet Peckinpaugh, a television news anchor who sued the station owner for demoting and ultimately firing her, was awarded $8.3 million by a federal jury in Hartford. Again, the jury of five men and three women rejected the plaintiff’s age discrimination claim, but it agreed that she had been the victim of sex discrimination and retaliation and that the station owner broke its written and oral promises to provide her with long-term employment. The station had first bumped her from the 6:00 p.m. news in favor of a male anchor who she alleged had once sexually accosted her, and then refused to assign her to the open anchor spot on the 5:30 p.m. news because the other anchor assigned to that time slot was also a woman. The jury awarded punitive damages of $1 million for sex discrimination and $3 million for retaliation. The trial court subsequently reduced the award to $3,690,000 in compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages.

California Jury Verdicts

In March 1999, a California state court jury awarded $2.75 million for reverse discrimination and $2.2 million for retaliation to a white professor who was denied tenure at San Francisco State University. The plaintiff filed an EEOC complaint after he was denied tenure. Thereafter, his course load was reduced by 40% and he was eliminated completely from one department. The plaintiff also alleged that the school did nothing to investigate his complaints of discrimination and retaliation. This case represented the largest jury verdict in an employment case against a California school to date.

In May 1999, an executive recruiter who claimed he had been told by a human resources manager at Hyundai Semiconductor America Inc., “send us one more woman and you’re out,” was awarded $9.5 million by a California jury. The plaintiff also alleged he was told by Hyundai to screen out resumes from women and blacks seeking management positions, or he would not be paid for placements he had already made, nor would he be permitted to continue recruiting on Hyundai’s behalf. He was barred from recruiting for Hyundai after he complained to top executives. This case is notable not only for the blatantly discriminatory conduct alleged and for the nearly ten million dollar jury award, but also for the fact that the successful plaintiff was neither an employee of Hyundai nor was he personally discriminated against by Hyundai on the basis of his race or gender.

In July 1999, a California state court jury awarded $1.9 million to a police officer who alleged he was subjected to a hostile work environment and to disparate treatment because of his race. Specifically, he claimed he was subjected to racial slurs, wrongly accused of excessive use of force, not provided timely backup, and ostracized because of his race. The defendant police department contended that he never complained about being harassed or discriminated against until after he was accused of using excessive force.

Finally, a California jury handed a $28.04 million verdict to a former McDonnell Douglas employee in 1999. The jury found that the plaintiff, who was the only employee in his job category to be laid off in 1996, was fired in retaliation for an age and race discrimination charge which he had filed and settled in 1992, and in violation of that prior settlement agreement. The verdict, which included $26 million in punitive damages, was subsequently reduced by the trial judge to $10.41 million, including $9 million in punitive damages, $500,000 for emotional distress, and $366,445 for attorneys’ fees.