Appeals Panel, Reversing Major Damages Reductions, Says Ex-Montefiore Employee Entitled to $2.5M
"Under these uniquely abhorrent circumstances, the [damages] awards were reduced to levels that were disproportionately low," the Appellate Division, First Department wrote in a decision that reverses a series of damages-reductions ordered by a Bronx Supreme Court judge.
In an expansive decision reversing a Bronx Supreme Court judge, a state appeals court has reinstated a jury-trial finding that a former Montefiore Medical Center employee was battered on the job with a telephone handset. The panel also has tossed aside the judge’s major reduction of the jury’s $6 million total damages verdict to $523,805, deciding instead that she can take home $2.5 million, if she chooses, and the panel ruled that the employee is due a new trial on her gender discrimination claims and prayer for punitive damages.
The Appellate Division, First Department ruled that plaintiff Blanca Madrigal, who’d alleged she was subjected at Montefiore to years of vulgar ethnic slurs, demeaning assignments, sexual harassment and the battery with handset, can accept $2.5 million in damages for the jury’s awards to her for battery, hostile work environment emotional distress, and mental anguish caused by retaliatory termination of her employment. And she’d receive the trial court judge’s reduced verdict amount of $123,805 for lost wages.
Or Madrigal can have a new damages trial on those various claims, wrote the First Department panel in its decision.
Madrigal has 30 days to decide which route she takes: the $2.5 million or the new trial on the claims, according to the panel. Efforts to reach her lawyer, Stephen Bergstein of Bergstein & Ullrich, to see if an early decision had been made by him and Madrigal regarding the choice, were not successful.
Richard Reice, a Michelman & Robinson partner in Manhattan, who represented Montefiore and other defendants in the appeal, also couldn’t be immediately reached.
According to the directly stated, yet still lengthy, First Department ruling, Madrigal will get a new trial on tossed-out gender discrimination claims and regarding punitive damages, regardless of her decision pertaining to her clams for battery, hostile work environment and retaliatory termination.
After the trial, which ended in December 2019, Bronx Supreme Court Justice Howard Sherman had granted the motion of Montefiore, a major hospital center based in the Bronx, and its co-defendants to set aside the jury’s verdict to the extent it found that an individual defendant had committed the common-law battery against Madrigal, according to the panel’s decision issued Tuesday.
But the unanimous First Department panel, citing Rodriguez v. New York City Tr. Auth., among other cases, wrote in the opinion, “The evidence at trial supports the [jury’s] verdict for plaintiff [Madrigal] on her claim for common-law battery based on an incident in which the jury found that [a] defendant … struck plaintiff with a telephone handset, and that verdict is not against the weight of the evidence.”
The panel, composed of Justices Sallie Manzanet-Daniels, Barbara Kapnick, Angela Mazzarelli and Peter Moulton, also noted that “evidence [in the case] supports the [jury's] verdict that defendants created a hostile work environment in violation of the [New York] State and City HRL [Human Rights Laws] by subjecting [Madrigal] to a years-long onslaught of vulgar ethnic slurs, accompanied by demeaning work assignments not given to others.”
(It was unclear from the opinion what job role Madrigal worked in while at Montefiore, and most defendant names, other than Montefiore’s, were not stated in the opinion. Efforts to locate and obtain underlying lawsuit records were unsuccessful.)
The panel also noted that “trial evidence amply supports” the jury’s verdict on Madrigal’s retaliation claim. It wrote that she “engaged in protected activity by repeatedly complaining to her employer that supervisors were discriminating against her, and, indeed, by commencing the instant action,” and that the “defendants admit, they terminated her because of her repeated complaints.”
In explaining some its numerous reversals—or modifications, in the justices’ language—of Sherman’s reductions of far higher jury damages awards, the panel wrote that Sherman had “erred” in severely cutting the jury’s awards for compensatory damages for pain and suffering tied to Madrigal’s hostile work environment and retaliation claims.
“The jury heard evidence of a years long campaign of physical and emotional abuse against [Madrigal] by her colleagues and supervisors that was willfully ignored by her employer,” wrote the justices. “This environment caused [Madrigal] to suffer panic attacks and anxiety, with physical symptoms including sleeplessness, shortness of breath, and chest pain, necessitating several visits to the emergency room over the course of several years. [Madrigal's] doctor prescribed her sleep and anti-anxiety medicine, the latter of which she still takes. The termination caused her to sink into depression, from which she still had not recovered by the time of the trial years afterward.”
“Under these uniquely abhorrent circumstances,” the panel continued, “the awards were reduced to levels that were disproportionately low.”
The jury had awarded $1.5 million in damages for hostile work environment distress and $2.1 million for her employment-termination anguish, noted the justices. After the verdict, Sherman reduced those awards to $250,000 and $150,000, respectively, though, in regard to all of the damage reductions he made, Sherman gave Madrigal the option of having a new damages trial if she didn’t stipulate to reduced amounts he put forward.
Instead, she and her counsel at Bergstein & Ullrich in New Paltz, appealed Sherman’s post-verdict rulings.
In regard to Madrigal’s claim of gender discrimination and sexual harassment, which Sherman had dismissed using a directed verdict, meaning he’d decided there was no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for the jury to support the claim, the panel disagreed with the directed verdict ordered a new trial for the claim.
Madrigral’s testimony that “defendant Frantz Terlonge lewdly suggested that she sit on his lap, and that a few days later, while [she] was reaching into the breakroom refrigerator, he approached her from behind, wedged himself against her, and rubbed his penis against her backside, amply supported her claim of sexual harassment and gender discrimination,” the justices wrote.
“In addition,” wrote the justices, “the evidence spoke to the presence of a sustained campaign of malicious discrimination, as well as a painful and humiliating battery, which collectively amounted to a ‘conscious disregard of the rights of others or conduct so reckless as to amount to such disregard,’” quoting Chauca v. Abraham.
Accordingly, the justices said, Madrigal “should have had an opportunity to present her claim for punitive damages to the jury.”