Awards for “mental anguish and humiliation” in a civil claim for sexual harassment and assault must have a reasonable relationship to the actual harm suffered by a plaintiff, according to the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York, Third Department, in Matter of New York State Division of Human Rights, et al v. Young Legends, L.L.C. The court also limited the plaintiff’s ability to hold the individual owners personally liable.
The plaintiff worked at a franchise sandwich shop in Norwich, New York, owned by the defendant Young Legends, L.L.C., from September until December 2006. The plaintiff was a high school student at the time she worked at the shop. Dale Blackwood and Melissa Almonor, in addition to owning and serving as officers of Young Legends, worked in the sandwich shop as managers or supervisors. According to the plaintiff, during the time she was employed at the shop, Blackwood subjected her and other female employees to offensive personal remarks, frequent sexual innuendoes, and interactions she described as “touchy feely.”
The plaintiff asserted that Blackwood constantly put pressure on her to come to his apartment, and that when she eventually did, he “forced her to engage in sexual intercourse.” She never reported this to law enforcement or anyone at the shop. She stated that she did not report the sexual assault because of warnings from Blackwood and because she feared for her job. Blackwood allegedly asked her to come back to his apartment in December 2006. She refused, and he told her, in a series of text messages described as “angry” and “insulting,” that he interpreted this as her quitting her job at the shop. She never returned to work.
The plaintiff filed a complaint for sexual harassment with the New York State Division of Human Rights (SDHR) in January 2007, naming Young Legends, Blackwood, and Almonor as defendants and stating all of the above allegations. An administrative law judge (ALJ), after a hearing, made findings of quid pro quo and hostile work environment sexual harassment. The ALJ also found Blackwood and Almonor personally liable, since both knew or should have known of the harassment but failed to remedy or address it.
The ALJ recommended $1,218.75 damages for lost wages and $25,000 for “mental anguish and humiliation.” The Commissioner of Human Rights increased the mental anguish award to $500,000. SDHR then brought an application for enforcement before the Appellate Division.
The Appellate Division entered a ruling in December 2011 affirming the lost wage damage amount, reducing mental anguish damages to $50,000, and annulling all findings of liability against Almonor. The court held that mental anguish damages must be based upon a plaintiff’s actual pecuniary or emotional loss. While the court agreed that Blackwood’s actions were “unquestionably reprehensible,” the record showed that the plaintiff attended few counseling sessions and sought very little further medical care after the assault. Comparable claims had resulted in awards closer to $50,000. The court also ruled that, in order to hold Almonor personally liable for sexual harassment, the plaintiff needed to demonstrate that she actively participated in, encouraged, or condoned the alleged harassment.
At Phillips & Associates, we represent victims of workplace sexual harassment and discrimination in New York City and surrounding areas, fighting to protect their rights at the municipal, state, and federal levels. To schedule a free and confidential consultation, contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431.
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