2d Circuit Upholds Substantial Emotional Distress and Punitive Damages Awards in Sexual Harassment Case

In Small v. Cuer, 2020 WL 2215585 (2d Cir. May 7, 2020) (Summary Order), a sexual harassment case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a lower court ruling that, inter alia, largely upheld a substantial jury award in plaintiff’s favor for emotional distress and punitive damages.

The jury had awarded $1.55 million in psychological/physical damages and $50,000 in punitive damages. The district court held that the psychological damages award was excessive and issued a remittitur, finding that $500,000 was more appropriate (and conditionally ordering a new trial on damages if plaintiff did not accept this award), and that the $50,000 punitive damages award was proper. Small v. NYS Dept. of Corrections, 2019 WL 1593923 (WDNY April 15, 2019).

The Second Circuit affirmed this decision, explaining:

[T]he non-economic and punitive damages awards were supported by evidence of Cuer’s egregious conduct, including sending Small threatening messages, making unwanted advances after she asked him to stop, filing a false complaint accusing her of an inappropriate relationship with an inmate, and violating an order of protection. The damages award against Cuer was also supported by testimony that Small suffered significant physical, psychological, and emotional harms as a result. In sum, we conclude that the District Court’s reduced award was supported by the trial record.

The substantial award for economic damages (approximately $2.3 million) was unchallenged.