Friday, November 18, 2011

$1 million punitives award in discrimination case cut down to $50,000

A federal judge has reduced a $1 million punitive damages award to $50,000 following a jury trial in which a black former employee of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital proved that management retaliated against him for complaining about racial discrimination in the workplace.

The case is Chisholm v. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 130089 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 3, 2011). Chisholm convinced the jury that a supervisor, Adamec, punished him for speaking out about workplace discrimination. This led to Chisholm's termination. The jury awarded Chisholm more than $230,000 in back pay and authorized the judge to award him front pay, or future lost income. The jury also awarded plaintiff a million dollars in punitives under the New York City Human Rights Law. That million dollar award has been remitted to $50,000.

First, Judge Marrero awarded $102,000 in front pay, through 2014. Chisholm wanted front pay through 2020, when he turns 65. But the court said that awarding front pay for the next nine years would be speculative and that Chisholm probably would have been fired long before then because of performance deficiencies. Judge Marrero says:
While the Court does not contest the jury's finding that the April 2007 log-sheet incident was not the true reason for Chisholm's termination, Chisholm's behavior in connection with that incident is nonetheless relevant evidence of Chisholm's inappropriate workplace demeanor. That Chisholm had retained transportation department documents in his locked desk drawer and indicative Defendants could troubling justifiably regard as of behavior increasingly erratic. Under these circumstances, the Court concludes that it is unlikely that Chisholm would have remained employed by Sloan-Kettering through 2020.
So, while the jury said the log-sheet incident was not the real reason for plaintiff's termination (and that the real reason was retaliation), the court uses that incident as a means to limit Chisholm's front-pay award.

On punitive damages, the jury awarded them because of Adamec's reprehensible behavior. But the jury was also told that the hospital would pay out the award under the New York City Human Rights Law. The court says the award shocks the judicial conscience. Even though the hospital pays the award, the court cites cases holding that a punitive damages award cannot "be so high as to result in the financial ruin of the defendant." Of course, this award would not ruin the hospital, but it would certainly ruin Adamic were he to pay the award. He doesn't though. While Chisholm's lawyers argued that this large award would deter an institution such as Sloan-Kettering from doing this again, the district court rejects that argument as lacking any support in case law. The court concludes, "While Adamec's conduct was certainly reprehensible, as the jury found, it did not involve violence or the threat of violence. Nor did it involve racial slurs or other offensive language. Moreover, an award of $50,000 represents a significant financial hardship to an
individual defendant."

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