NDNY Upholds Sexual Harassment/Hostile Work Environment Jury Verdict for Plaintiff Corrections Officer

In Legg v. Ulster County, et al, 2017 WL 3668777 (N.D.N.Y. 09-cv-00550, Aug. 24, 2017) (J. Scullin), the Northern District of New York, inter alia, upheld a jury verdict in favor of one plaintiff (a female corrections officer) on her hostile work environment claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.[1]The court also granted defendant’s motion for judgment as a matter of law on plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“because she did not present sufficient evidence that the hostile work environment was a result of a municipal policy or custom”), and found that the jury’s compensatory damages award of $200,000 was excessive and granted defendant’s motion for a new trial as to plaintiff’s Title VII claim unless plaintiff agrees to a remittitur reducing the award to $75,000.

Here I will focus on the court’s evaluation of plaintiff’s Title VII hostile work environment claim.

Applying the law to the facts, the court explained:

Viewing the totality of the evidence, the jury could have fairly concluded that Plaintiff was consistently exposed to offensive pornographic materials and screensavers as well as inappropriate comments describing these images. The pervasiveness of the illicit material in the jail, although insufficient in and of itself to establish a hostile work environment, counsels in favor of finding that a hostile work environment existed. Furthermore, Plaintiff was subjected to several sexually offensive encounters with Divorl. First, Plaintiff testified that Divorl would comment about her physical features in a suggestive way. Second, Plaintiff had to hear Divorl describe the pornographic images that he was viewing in front of her. Finally, Divorl commented that he “could feel his balls vibrating” while seated on a massage chair. These comments and actions have obvious sexual overtones and are both objectively and subjectively offensive. Furthermore, Plaintiff complained that Divorl came up behind her and breathed down her neck and would always stare at her and make her feel very uncomfortable. Although these incidents are not obviously sexually based, the Court may still consider them when deciding whether Plaintiff suffered a hostile work environment. …

Plaintiff clearly presented sufficient evidence from which a reasonable juror could have concluded that Plaintiff suffered a hostile work environment. In other words, it cannot be said that the jury’s verdict was “egregious.” Therefore, for many of the same reasons as stated above, the Court finds that there is no persuasive reason to grant a new trial with respect to whether Plaintiff suffered a hostile work environment.

This did not end the inquiry, however. “The plaintiff must also show that there is reason to impute the existence of the hostile work environment to the defendant.” Where, as here, the harassment is attributable to plaintiff’s coworkers, “the employer will be held liable only for its own negligence.”

The court held that “the jury had a sufficient basis to determine that Defendant failed to respond adequately to Plaintiff’s complaint.” To support this conclusion, it noted (inter alia) that “[p]laintiff’s testimony paints a picture of a meeting where she was intimidated into agreeing that she did not want to pursue a formal complaint and was not given any option between having Divorl fired and proceeding informally” and that “including Divorl, the alleged harasser, in the meeting to address a sexual harassment complaint appears to have directly contradicted Defendant’s own policy of handling claims with ‘the utmost discretion.'”

In light of its determination that “the jury had a sufficient basis to determine that Defendant failed to respond adequately to Plaintiff’s complaint,” the court denied defendant’s motion for judgment as a matter of law (or alternatively for a new trial) on plaintiff’s Title VII hostile work environment claim.

1 The court also granted defendant’s motion for judgment as a matter of law on plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“because she did not present sufficient evidence that the hostile work environment was a result of a municipal policy or custom”), and found that the jury’s compensatory damages award of $200,000 was excessive and granted defendant’s motion for a new trial as to plaintiff’s Title VII claim unless plaintiff agrees to a remittitur reducing the award to $75,000.
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