A recent jury verdict and court decision in Bronx County is helpful to women throughout New York State. Whether you work in the Bronx, Albany, Buffalo or anywhere in between, the actions by a group of jurors in New York City cannot be ignored.
According to the three women, they were subjected to statements by their bosses to the effect of “not to have children,” “you better not get pregnant” and, upon notifying one supervisor of a pregnancy, asked, “are you going to keep it?” This may not be shocking, as many women reading this article will have experienced similar treatment in one form or another.
Each of the women was likewise subjected to pregnancy-related harassment and stereotypes, including being asked illegal questions; being stripped of job duties; being assigned to intolerable working conditions; subjected to forced medical testing; being threatened, mocked and shunned, and having false scenarios orchestrated in an effort to fire them. To compound things, one of the plaintiffs' own supervisors was overheard stating that she had been fired for being pregnant.
Many women reading this article will have experienced similar treatment in one form or another. This is illegal.
The victims filed a collective lawsuit, and following a trial the jury awarded each of them $1.5 million dollars in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages. The defense immediately filed a motion, asking the court to reduce the verdict.
First, let's define compensatory and punitive damages.
Compensatory damages are damages that are meant to compensate a victim for the emotional distress that the victim has suffered as a result of the conduct of the defendant – in this case the employer. Generally speaking, in order to support a significant compensatory damages award, a Plaintiff must have treated with a physician or mental health provider for the emotional distress. In the absence of medical treatment, courts will typically consider the emotional distress to be of the “garden variety” sort, and therefore not entitled to a significant monetary award. In this case the court actually lowered the compensatory damages, to $400,000 for each victim. This is not surprising given what victims of discrimination have received for compensatory damages in other employment discrimination lawsuits in New York.
Punitive damages are damages meant to punish the wrongdoer and set an example. The problem with punitive damages is that they aren't awarded all that frequently (because cases that warrant punitive damages are typically settled before trial), so what constitutes “reasonable” punitive damages in employment and pregnancy discrimination cases can be difficult to determine.
The Kings County jury found that the conduct of the supervisors of the women, which amounted to clear pregnancy discrimination, was so reprehensible that the company should be punished, to the tune of $1.5 million in total punitive damages.
After a jury returns a verdict in a civil suit the parties have the opportunity to ask the court to raise or lower the amount, or in some cases “set aside” the verdict. This happened here.
The most important part of this case, we believe, was that the Judge upheld the punitive damages award, effectively saying that $500,000 per victim was a fair and reasonable amount of money to punish the wrongdoers.
And this is why this is important for women throughout New York State. Because this case illustrates that pregnancy discrimination will not be tolerated, and that juries are willing to send a message to wrongdoers that this conduct is not an acceptable part of society. When judges affirm these awards, it reinforces the threat of punitive damages and, hopefully, will make some employers think twice before making the decision to treat pregnant women differently, or allowing others to do so.
If you have been targeted because of a pregnancy or pregnancy related condition, contact us today.