Friday, January 4, 2013

$1 million damages award in student harassment sustained on appeal

The Court of Appeals has sustained a high damages award for the student victim of racial bullying in a Dutchess County high school. I talk about the liability portion of the decision at this link. Now for the damages.

The case is Zeno v. Pine Plains Central School District, decided on December 3. The student bullying went on for 3.5 years. The jury found that the school was deliberately indifferent to the harassment, and it awarded the plaintiff, Anthony Zeno, $1.25 million. The trial court reduced that amount to $1 million, and the Court of Appeals (Cabranes, Chin and Livingston) affirms.

In assessing a damages award on appeal, courts defer to the jury's judgment. But defendant argued that the award was too high because Anthony only suffered garden-variety damages and therefore the low damages awards under Title VII (for workplace discrimination) should govern. The school district also argued that the damages award is out of line with comparable cases. The Court of Appeals rejects both arguments.

First, Anthony put on corroborating evidence of his pain and suffering. His mother and an NAACP advocate who intervened on his behalf testified about his "increasing frustration, loneliness, and other emotional anguish. While Anthony's testimony alone arguably might not support his claim of emotional distress ..., others who testified corroborated Anthony's suffering and distress." Yes, there is a Second Circuit case that says that Title VII plaintiffs need to corroborate their damages, Annis v. County of Westchester, 136 F.3d 239 (2d Cir. 1998). The Court (and defendants) cite that case from time to time, and there are cases that go the other way. But if you represent plaintiffs, it's good to have family and friends testify about the plaintiff's distress.

Second, Anthony suffered "substantially adverse educational consequences" through prolonged harassment which ruined the high school experience, hurt his grades and compelled him to accept a substandard diploma because he was unable to complete Regents requirements, a diploma that does not get him into college. This is a new holding for the Second Circuit.

Third, Title VII damages awards are not applicable to student harassment cases under Title VI and Title IX. Title VII cases are brought by adults; student are more vulnerable than Title VII plaintiffs, as the U.S. Department of Education has stated in in its policy pronouncements. The harassment was particularly humiliating because it occurred in front of friends, classmates and teachers. "The jury reasonably could have found that the harassment would have a profound and long-term impact on Anthony's life and his ability to earn a living."

Although the Court of Appeals cites only one other student harassment case that resulted in a $1 million damages award, Anthony's award does not "shock the judicial conscience," which is the legal standard. A footnote summarizes other damages awards in student harassment cases. Most of the cases yielded damages in the six figures. One case got the plaintiff $800,000, but that verdict was overturned by the trial court because the evidence did not support the claim on liability; still, the Second Circuit cites that vacated case in support of Anthony's damages award. "Given the severity, duration, and egregiousness of Anthony's unchecked harassment, his reduced compensatory damages was not outside the 'range of permissible decisions.'"

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