Court Remits Punitive Damages Award, from $500,000 to $250,000, in Sexual Harassment/Retaliation Case Against Columbia University

In Ravina v. Columbia University and Geert Bekaert, 16-cv-2137, 2019 WL 1450449 (S.D.N.Y. March 31, 2019), a sexual harassment/retaliation case, the court – in addition to denying defendant’s motion for judgment as a matter of law on plaintiff’s retaliation claim – next evaluated the jury’s damage awards to plaintiff ($750,000 in emotional distress damages, $500,000 in punitive damages).

In this post, I will focus on the court’s evaluation of the jury’s punitive damages award.

In sum, plaintiff (an assistant professor) alleged that she was subject to retaliation after complaining about sexual harassment.

Initially, the court upheld the jury’s determination that the alleged harasser, Geert Bekaert, is liable for punitive damages:

The Court also will not disturb the jury’s verdict that Bekaert is liable for punitive damages. Under the NYCHRL, “a plaintiff is entitled to punitive damages where the wrongdoer’s actions amount to willful or wanton negligence, or recklessness, or where there is a conscious disregard of the rights of others or conduct so reckless as to amount to such disregard.” Chauca v. Abraham, 30 N.Y.3d 325, 329 (2017) (internal quotation marks omitted). There was sufficient evidence presented at trial to permit a reasonable jury to conclude that Bekaert’s retaliatory conduct met this standard. Several of the emails Bekaert sent to friends and colleagues, for instance, indicated that Bekaert was aware of, but disregarded, Ravina’s right to be free from retaliation for having complained about him.

However, the court determined that the jury’s award of $500,000 was excessive, and that $250,000 was an appropriate award.

It summarized the framework for evaluating the propriety of a particular award:

Punitive damages are intended not only to punish the tortfeasor but also to deter future reprehensible conduct.” Chauca, 30 N.Y.3d at 331. In reviewing an award of punitive damages for excessiveness, courts consider “three guideposts” established by the Supreme Court in BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559, 575 (1996): “(1) the degree of reprehensibility of the tortious conduct; (2) the ratio of punitive damages to compensatory damages, and (3) the difference between this remedy and the civil penalties authorized or imposed in comparable cases.” Lee v. Edwards, 101 F.3d 805, 809 (2d Cir. 1996). Courts also review the punitive damages awards in similar cases in order to gauge whether a particular punitive award is excessive.

As to the first element, the court elaborated:

The first guidepost—the degree of reprehensibility—“is particularly important and useful because punitive damages are intended to punish, and the severity of punishment. .. should vary with the degree of reprehensibility of the conduct[.] … In assessing the reprehensibility of a defendant’s conduct, the Supreme Court has instructed that courts should ‘consider whether: the harm caused was physical as opposed to economic; the tortious conduct evinced an indifference to or reckless disregard of the health and safety of others; the target of the conduct had financial vulnerability; the conduct involved repeated actions or was an isolated incident; and the harm was the result of intentional malice, trickery, or deceit, or mere accident.’

Applying this standard, the court noted, inter alia, that here, the jury found Bekaert liable for retaliation, but not discrimination, and that Bekaert’s conduct was not violent and did not threaten violence. However, “the jury reasonably could have found that his retaliatory conduct involved repeated actions, rather than an isolated incident, and that he acted out of malice, rather than mere accident” and therefore, “[u]nder the circumstances … Bekaert’s conduct can be described as reprehensible, though it does not fall at the extreme end of the reprehensibility spectrum.’”

The second guidepost, the ratio of punitive damages to compensatory damages, did “not raise concerns of excessiveness”, since the jury’s punitive award ($500,000) was less than its compensatory damages award, and equal to the reduced compensatory damages award deemed by the court to be proper.

As to the third guidepost, the court noted that “the NYCHRL authorizes a maximum civil penalty of $250,000 for an ‘unlawful discriminatory practice that was the result of the respondent’s willful, wanton or malicious act'” and determined that “[t]he punitive damages award in this case is twice that amount, suggesting that the award was excessive.”

Finally, the court – after surveying various cases – found that “a comparison of the punitive damages award in this case to the awards sustained in other comparable cases further indicates that the $500,000 award was excessive.”

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