A jury in the Northern District of Illinois has awarded two plaintiffs $6.45 million in damages, $6 million of which was allocated to punitive damages, clearly signaling that, regardless of statutory caps, juries do not look favorably upon employers who ignore employee complaints of sexual harassment.
In Davis v. Packer Engineering, Inc., No. 1:11-cv-07923, Danya Davis, Bernessa Wilson, and Shannon Webb alleged, among other things, that their employers subjected them to a hostile work environment and retaliated against them for complaining about such environment by terminating their employment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000 et seq. The plaintiffs complained that despite their repeated complaints, the defendants ignored them. The jury awarded Davis and Wilson each $3 million in punitive damages and $150,000 and $300,000, respectively, in compensatory damages. Of course, these numbers far exceed the statutory caps imposed by Title VII.
An award in which there is such a great disparity between the amounts allocated to punitive and compensatory damages clearly signals that the jury intended to punish the employer for disregarding its employees’ complaints. Moreover, while Title VII imposes statutory caps, other federal and state laws do not, and verdicts of this size could be upheld and enforced under similar laws.
Nearly 20 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court held that an employer is vicariously liable under Title VII when a supervisor creates a sexually hostile work environment that results in a tangible job action, unless the employer can show that (1) it exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct the harassing behavior, and (2) the employee failed to act reasonably under the employer’s non-harassment policy “or to avoid harm otherwise” (the “Ellerth/Faragher defense”). Burlington Indus., Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742, 765 (1998); Faragher v. Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775, 807 (1998).
Employers must make sure their employees are well-trained and understand how to handle employee harassment complaints. Employers should keep these tips in mind:
- Train employees on the company’s EEO and non-harassment policies;
- Consistently enforce the policies;
- Take every complaint seriously, no matter how trivial it may appear;
- Keep the investigation confidential and involve only those individuals who “need to know”;
- Be objective and stick to the facts; and
- Lead by example.
Jackson Lewis attorneys are available to answer inquiries regarding this case and assist employers in the risk of litigation.