An employee, alleging sexual harassment at a Domino Sugar refinery in Yonkers, has won a $13.4 million verdict in federal court in Manhattan.
The plaintiff's own attorney acknowledged that this is a surprising verdict for a single-plaintiff employment case, and attributed the large number – which included $11.7 million in punitive (i.e., punishment) damages – to the momentum of the #MeToo movement.
While this number is likely to be reduced – Title VII has damages caps for compensatory (i.e., emotional distress) and punitive damages – the large number is certainly a big warning to employers that they better start dealing with sexual harassment more seriously.
In reading about this case, one of the things that jumped out at us was that the plaintiff had been complaining for several years with nothing being done. This is a common theme we see in our own practice. Most employees want to keep their jobs both for financial reasons and because many of them have worked hard to achieve progress in their chosen career. But, when things start to go downhill at work, there is typically a point where it goes from “I want to keep my job” to “I want to take legal action.” More often than not, that point is when complaints are not taken seriously and when an employee starts to feel like their employer does not care about them or is punishing them for speaking out.
Aside from doing the right thing, from a liability avoidance perspective, employers benefit from training their employees and having complaint and investigation procedures in place. Once an employee has made a complaint, the employer should thoroughly investigate it and not retaliate against the complainer. (Retaliation is one of the biggest complaints to the EEOC in recent years).
If you feel you have been harassed, discriminated or retaliated against, give us a call. We're happy to see if we can help.