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4th Circuit Upholds Plaintiff’s Award In Sexual Harassment Case

Published by on July 30, 2008

In Benson v. Thompson Cadillac-Oldsmobile, Inc., the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld an award of $50,000 in compensatory damages, $111,148.76 in back pay and $60,417.25 in attorney’s fees in a sexual harassment case tried to a jury in North Carolina.  A copy of the decision can be read here. Plaintiff filed suit against her former employer […]

In Benson v. Thompson Cadillac-Oldsmobile, Inc., the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld an award of $50,000 in compensatory damages, $111,148.76 in back pay and $60,417.25 in attorney’s fees in a sexual harassment case tried to a jury in North Carolina.  A copy of the decision can be read here.

Plaintiff filed suit against her former employer claiming she was sexually harassed on a regular basis by co-workers.  She presented evidence that one co-worker habitually referred to women in authority as “bitches,” blamed her for his errors, and threatened to fire plaintiff even though he was equal to plaintiff in terms of authority.  Another male co‑worker humiliated plaintiff in front of a customer and attempted to exercise supervisory authority over Benson several times a week, despite the fact that he was considered equal to plaintiff in the corporate structure.  Plaintiff complained to management about her co-worker’s behavior on several occasions and was advised to ignore the negative comments.  Plaintiff alleged that the corporation failed to prevent the maintenance of a sexually hostile work environment, that they discriminated against plaintiff in the terms and/or conditions of her employment on the basis of her sex and that they retaliated against her for complaining about the discrimination practiced by defendant.  Defendant moved to dismiss plaintiff’s discrimination claims based on certain discovery violations and for summary judgment.  Summary judgment was denied, but the court issued a pretrial order barring plaintiff from introducing any information at trial that was not revealed during the course of discovery.

The only claim submitted to the jury was her sexually hostile work environment claim because the district court believed she was only pursuing said claim due to her pretrial submissions and proposed jury instructions. The jury awarded plaintiff $100,000 in compensatory damages and the district court reduced the award to $50,000.  The district court then granted plaintiff’s motion for back pay and awarded plaintiff two years back pay in the amount of $111,148.76.  Defendant appealed.

The Court of Appeals found that plaintiff had established her claim for a hostile work environment, in that she was (1) was the recipient of unwelcome conduct; (2) that such conduct was based on her gender; (3) that it was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter her conditions of employment and created an abusive work environment; and (4) that the conduct was imputable to the defendant.  The court found that there was sufficient evidence that the treatment was unwelcome due to her complaints to management.  They further found that there was sufficient evidence that the unwelcome conduct was based on gender due to her co-worker’s derogatory comments about women.  The court determined there was sufficient evidence that plaintiff had been subjected to severe and pervasive harassment due to the evidence that plaintiff was subjected to frequent, humiliating conduct which interfered with her work performance.  The conduct of plaintiff’s co-worker’s was imputable to defendant because there was sufficient evidence that defendant had actual or constructive knowledge of the hostile work environment.

The Court of Appeals found that the district court had not abused its discretion in granting plaintiff two years back pay. Defendants argued that plaintiff had failed to mitigate damages and that the back pay award exceeded the calculations plaintiff provided in discovery.  The court stated that the employer had not met their burden of proving a failure to mitigate.  Plaintiff presented evidence that she submitted approximately eighty-two separate applications and the court ruled that this was a sufficient showing of an effort to mitigate damages.  The court also rejected defendant’s argument that the pretrial order, barring plaintiff from introducing any evidence that was not revealed during discovery, precluded an award of back pay.  The court stated that back pay should be denied if it frustrates the purpose of eradicating discrimination and making persons whole for injuries suffered.  They also stated that back pay should not be denied because the particular cause was prosecuted in an eccentric fashion.  However, the court did calculate the back pay award only on the evidence of earnings she provided at trial and not the greater amount that she never provided.  Finally the court determined that the district court did not abuse its discretion in calculating and awarding attorneys fees.

Contributed by Alexis J. Alber.

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