Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Seven-figure verdict in sexual harassment case

This case involves horrible sexual harassment. The plaintiff worked for law firm and alleges she was raped by a lawyer. I will spare you the details. The law firm obstructed discovery, violated court orders, tried to purchase the plaintiff's testimony, and the court ultimately awarded plaintiff a default judgment. The defendant lawyer fled the country. The district court awarded the plaintiff $350,000 for emotional distress and $700,000 in punitive damages, plus $24,000 in lost wages.

The case is Villalta v. JS Barkats, PLLC, 2021 WL 2458699 (S.D.N.Y. April 16, 2021), report and recommendation adopted, 2021 WL 2458023 (S.D.N.Y. June 16, 2021). Case values are hard to predict, because juries are not told what to award if they find liability. This was an inquest hearing, however, before the magistrate judge.

After finding that plaintiff proved her sexual harassment and constructive discharge case through evidence of the pervasive sexual harassment in the workplace and the individual defendant's forcible sexual acts on the plaintiff, the court turned to damages. While Title VII imposes a $300,000 cap on pain and suffering, there is no such cap on New York City Human Rights Law claims. Hence, the high damages award.

Employment discrimination lawyers know there are three categories of damages in the Second Circuit: "garden variety," significant, and egregious. Garden variety damages, usually without psychological treatment, range from $30,000 to $125,000. Significant damages range from $50,000 to $200,000. Egregious damages "generally involve either outrageous or shocking discriminatory conduct or a significant impact on the physical health of the plaintiff." These damages can far exceed $200,000 "with awards over $1 million reserved for the most egregious cases." In support of the $350,000 award, the magistrate writes:

Here, the Court has no difficulty in concluding that an award of “egregious” emotional harm damages is appropriate. To recap: Barkats twice sexually assaulted Villalta in the workplace, coercing her into performing oral sex and engaging in sexual intercourse – once as a condition for her to obtain her job, and a second time on her first day of work to demonstrate what would continue to be expected of Villalta if she wanted to keep her job. Barkats choked Villalta and told her that she belonged to him. These physical assaults were followed by ongoing harassment carried out through text messages and social media posts, including Barkats’ threat to disseminate revenge porn depicting Villalta and his multiple attempts to purchase Villalta's testimony. (Villalta Decl. ¶ 15 and Ex. B.)


Villalta's emotional trauma was severe and long, persisting to the present, even after more than six years since the physical assaults. Villalta treated with a therapist, albeit sporadically and for a brief period less than half a year, who confirmed that she suffered from paranoia, anxiety, depression, and alcoholic episodes when attempting to cope with Barkats’ assault and abuse. (Urban Decl. Ex. A at 1, 2, 4.) She had trouble maintaining employment, particularly due to her fear of working for a male superior. Villalta resorted to self-harm, thrice cutting herself, and experienced suicidal ideations after feeling as though all hope was lost. (Villalta Decl. ¶¶ 7, 11-12, 19.) She ate to relieve stress, gained over thirty pounds, and then underwent surgery to remove that weight in attempting to mentally recover and repair her self-worth. (Villalta Decl. ¶¶ 10, 18-19.) In short, Villalta has suffered extensive and ongoing mental and physical harm.

As for punitive damages, the judge awards plaintiff  $700,000. The judge writes:

Barkats’ assault and harassment of Villalta is reprehensible in its own right. Villalta came to Barkats as a financially vulnerable young woman, willing to accept a $30,000 annual salary despite being subjected to sexual assault during her job interview, only to face another sexual assault on her first day of work. (Villalta Decl. ¶ 4.) Barkats’ conduct was violent, willful, malicious, and intentional.13 He caused Villalta both physical and lasting psychological harm. Any “reasonable employer” would have known that he was violating Villalta's legal rights; all the more so given that Barkats is an attorney and JSB a law firm.

It also was hardly isolated. As previously explained, Barkats committed similar acts of quid quo pro sexual discrimination and harassment just one year prior to his assaults on Villalta. (Shivecharan Aff. ¶¶ 3-12.) Barkats’ sexual coercion of Villalta and Shivecharan are among the more heinous examples of the hostile work environment Barkats and JSB foisted on all of their female employees, belittling them, criticizing their looks and dress, instilling fear in them, and reducing them to tears. (Spinelli Aff. ¶¶ 8-16.)


Meanwhile, Barkats remains undeterred despite this lawsuit. Rather than owning up to his transgressions, he fled the country as a fugitive, all the while delaying Villalta's case and engaging in dilatory litigation tactics. More pointedly, he has continued to harass Villalta with texts, threatening to retaliate against her for her ongoing efforts to obtain a measure of justice. Barkats has even gone so far as to attempt to suborn perjury, offering Villalta monetary “reward” for testimony that she was wrong.

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