Monday, November 17, 2008

Circuit upholds $300,000 in damages for pain and suffering in harassment suit

People are often surprised to hear that when a case goes to trial, the jury is not given any real guidance as to the value of the case for the purposes of determining an award for pain and suffering. The standard jury instructions ask the jury to give the plaintiff an amount of money that would fairly compensate her for the emotional distress, with the warning that the jury should not make its award based on passion.

This means that the jury can give an excessive award. You can't blame the jury. They have no guidance on these matters. The question, then, is how do the courts assess whether a damages award is appropriate? Case law provides the only answer. Courts will look the comparable cases to see what other juries awarded, and also to see what judges are willing to live with.

The case is Marchisotto v. City of New York, decided on November 7. This unpublished summary order is another guide for lawyers and their clients about damages for serious pain and suffering. In this case, the plaintiff, a male police officer, prevailed at trial on his sex discrimination and retaliation claim against a female supervisor, who pursued a sexual relationship with plaintiff and retaliated against him when he rebuffed her advances.

The jury awarded plaintiff $300,000 in damages for pain and suffering. That's a lot of money. But the trial court sustained the award, noting that plaintiff proved that his physical health suffered substantially as a result of the illegal treatment at work and he sought medical help which lasted several years. The plaintiff was also suffering from depression, anxiety and insomnia, taking medication to for these maladies. Moreover, medical testimony showed that he suffered from panic disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder and that these problems persisted through trial. The plaintiff was "shattered" and unable to move on with his life. These are serious damages, and the Court of Appeals, in affirming the damages award, agreed that this justifies the $300,000 award for pain and suffering.

While the Court of Appeals does not do so, the trial court opinion cites cases from New York and around the country in showing that this damages award is in line with comparable cases. Here's a taste of those cases:

Osorno v. Source Enterprises, Inc., 2007 WL 683985, at *5 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 2, 2007) (finding an award of $4 million for emotional distress to be reasonable based on plaintiff's testimony about her depression, anxiety, and embarrassment); Petroyits v. New York City Transit Auth., 2003 WL 22349676 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 15, 2003) (award of $150,000 in compensatory damages is not excessive where plaintiff sought mental health treatment for stress from denial of promotion); McDonough v. City of Quincy, 452 F.3d 8, 22 (1st Cir. 2006) (upholding compensatory damages award of $300,000 where bulk of award was for emotional damages and plaintiff testified that he had loved his job, suffered humiliation, and his relationship with his family suffered because of his anger); Moorer v. Baptist Memorial Health Care System, 398 F.3d 469, 485-86 (6th Cir. 2005) (finding award of $250,000 for emotional damages reasonable when plaintiff and his physician testified that he suffered from depression, loss of self-esteem, anxiety, and “excessive thoughts”).

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