Monday, September 24, 2018

SDNY reduces $624,000 pain and suffering award to $125,000

A Southern District judge has reduced a $1.3 million verdict in a disability discrimination case to $250,000, ruling that the plaintiff suffered only "garden variety" damages but that she was entitled to punitive damages under the New York City Human Rights Law. In this blog post, I will talk about the damages. The next post will cover punitives.

The case is Duarte v. St. Barnabas Hospital, 2018 WL 4440501, issued by Judge Gardephe on September 17. Lead counsel is Megan Goddard. I assisted with post-trial briefing. Plaintiff is hearing-impaired. She testified that her manager, Quinones, created a hostile environment on the basis of disability in regularly insulting plaintiff over the hearing impairment, even slamming the table during staff meetings, which created an ear-splitting sound-assault because plaintiff's amplification device was on the table, connected to her earphones. This did not happen every day, but the manager did this over the course of five years, triggering painful memories of plaintiff's childhood when her father ridiculed her over the hearing impairment. Plaintiff did not go to counseling, but she confided in social worker colleagues at the hospital about her distress. Here is how the district court reviews the emotional distress evidence:

Plaintiff testified that – during her employment at DCCS – she discussed her emotional distress with her children and with four fellow DCCS clinicians – Torres, Carmen Lopez, Silva Dolman, and Janet Santa Cruz. Plaintiffs' children were not called as witnesses at trial, however, and – other than Torres – the clinicians mentioned by Duarte were not called to testify. 
Torres testified as follows regarding Duarte’s emotional distress:
Before the meetings, Ms. Duarte ... would call me to say please don't leave me alone. So I would go to her office and get her and already she was appearing, she was appearing nervous, and she would just grab my hand and say well, hopefully everything goes well.
I said let’s pray, let’s pray that everything goes well and that there will be a miracle, Edgardo will cancel the meeting, you know, that he doesn't say any remark....
... As we were walking, we were basically reiterating everything will be okay, you'll get through it. Then we [would] go into the staff meetings....
Torres added that she and Plaintiff would “pray[ ] for a miracle that Edgardo wouldn't show up, that he wouldn't come out and say those horrible things,” such as “are you deaf, are you deaf.”
According to Torres, when Quinones made remarks about Plaintiff’s hearing disability at staff meetings, Duarte would “sigh, ‘Edgardo,’ ” “shake her head, bring it down[,] ... [and] shut down [for] the rest of the staff meeting.” “[I]f the meeting went bad, meaning that Edgardo ... humiliated her in front of us, the co-workers, then [Duarte] would leave crying.” Plaintiff would later cry in front of Torres and say, “I don't understand why he does this.” According to Torres, Plaintiff eventually stopped speaking up at meetings out of “fear that it would trigger Mr. Quinones.”
Federal courts in New York classify emotional distress damages in three ways: (1) garden variety, which can get you from $30,000 to $125,000; (2) significant, which range from $100,000 to $500,000; and (3) egregious, which can exceed $500,000. Juries are not told about this, and they probably have no idea how lawyers and judges pick through their damages awards to ensure they do not exceed these standards. Judge Gardephe says plaintiff's damages are only garden-variety.

Plaintiffs who do not seek out psychological help may find themselves in the garden-variety category. That's what happened here. The court says plaintiff's "vague and subjective complaints of insomnia, lower self-esteem, depression, anxiety and stomach aches and headaches" are not "significant" under the above framework because she did not support them with medical corroboration. The court also finds that plaintiff did not suffer long-term emotional distress as a result of the discrimination. While cases do allow for significant emotional distress damages if the harassment continues for several years, the court says this case is not comparable to those cases that awarded significant damages. This means the $624,000 in pain and suffering is remitted to $125,000.

No comments: