Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Appellate Division awards discrimination plaintiff $2.5 million in damages

The Appellate Division, First, Department has upheld a racial discrimination verdict, determining that the plaintiff is entitled to a total of $2.5 million for pain and suffering resulting from the hostile work environment, retaliatory termination for complaining about the harassment, and a civil battery that took place at work.

The case is Madrigal v. Montefiore Hospital, issued on February 2. I handled the appeal. Ian Wallace, Esq., of New York City, tried the case solo.

Plaintiff worked at Montefiore in the blood bank, where she claims two supervisors subjected her to horrible racial epithets over the course of several years. One supervisor attacked her with a land-line telephone, and she was also sexually harassed. Plaintiff was ultimately fired after complaining about the discrimination and filing a lawsuit over the harassment.

While the case was filed in 2010, the case went to trial in 2017. The defendant fought this case tooth-and-nail. A Bronx jury awarded plaintiff $1.5 million for pain and suffering on the hostile work environment, $2.1 million for pain and suffering for the retaliatory termination, $1.585 million on the battery, and $824,000 in lost wages. During trial, the trial court dismissed the sexual harassment claim on directed verdict and denied plaintiff a punitive damages charge.

On post-trial motions, the trial judge upheld the racial harassment and retaliation verdicts but reduced the damages to $250,000 on the harassment and $150,000 on retaliation. The trial judge vacated the battery verdict in its entirety for lack of sufficient evidence. The judge also reduced the lost wages from $824,000 to $123,000. Both sides appealed from all rulings.

On appeal, the First Department:

(1) upheld the HWE liability verdict, awarding plaintiff $750,000 in pain and suffering;

(2) upheld the retaliation liability verdict, awarding plaintiff $1 million in pain and suffering;

(3) reinstated the battery verdict, awarding plaintiff $750,000 in pain and suffering resulting from being attacked by a supervisor (who had previously taunted her with racial insults) with a telephone, sending her to the emergency room;

(4) reinstated the sexual harassment claim and remanded it for trial, reasoning that a co-worker who sat on her lap and rubbed his penis against her discriminated on the basis of gender; and

(5) reinstated the punitive damages claim on the City HRL and battery claims, remanding that damages claim for trial.

 The $123,000 for lost wages stands.

Plaintiff's pain and suffering was extensive, including hospital treatment and medication, along with corroboration from her family. There was also corroboration on the hostile work environment. On damages, the Appellate Division said plaintiff endured "uniquely abhorrent circumstances." Still, this reasoning is useful for other cases, including mediation and settlement demands. Defendant tried to argue through its expert that Plaintiff was delusional and narcissistic.

Trial judges often reduce large jury awards post-trial. That's what happened here. Few discrimination verdicts produce seven-figure awards, and the trial judge took a narrow view of the permissible damages awards authorized under the civil rights laws. The First Department did not reinstate the original jury award, but it did leave plaintiff with $2.5 million, one of the larger damages awards I've seen in this area. 

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