$375,000 Punitive Damages Award to Sexual Harassment Plaintiff

In Antoine v. Brooklyn Maids 26, Inc. et al, 19-cv-5676, 2020 WL 5752186 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 26, 2020), the court, inter alia, awarded a sexual harassment plaintiff $375,000 in punitive damages (on default).

This case involves shocking allegations of sexual harassment (which included, in the court’s description, conduct that was “tantamout to rape”). The reader is encouraged to review the decision and Judge Matsumoto’s thorough, extensive and careful analysis for a full review of the pertinent facts; here I will focus on the court’s assessment of punitive damages.

The court summarized the “black letter” law in this area:

A prevailing party is entitled to punitive damages under Title VII and the NYSHRL where defendants “engaged in intentional discrimination … with malice or reckless indifference to [plaintiff’s] federally protected rights.” Zimmermann v. Assocs. First Capital Corp., 251 F.3d 376, 384 (2d Cir. 2001). A plaintiff is entitled to punitive damages under the NYCHRL 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 and citation omitted). Title VII limits compensatory and punitive damages, excluding back pay, to $50,000 for employers such as Brooklyn Maids who have one hundred or fewer employees. See 42 U.S.C. § 1981a(b)(3)(A); Hawkins v. 1115 Legal Serv. Care, 163 F.3d 684, 691 (2d Cir. 2008).12 The NYSHRL does not explicitly provide for punitive damages. N.Y. Exec. Law § 297(9). The NYCHRL, on the other hand, imposes no limit on the amount of punitive damages a court may award. N.Y. Admin. Code. § 8-502(a). Punitive damages are also recoverable in an action for assault and battery under New York law, and “may be assessed where a defendant’s actions evince a high degree of moral culpability or demonstrate a wanton or reckless disregard for the rights of the plaintiff.”

The Second Circuit has recognized that:

[a]wards of punitive damages are by nature speculative, arbitrary approximations. No objective standard exists that justifies the award of one amount, as opposed to another, to punish a tortfeasor appropriately for his misconduct. Nor is there any formula to determine the dollar amount needed to effectuate deterrence.

Payne v. Jones, 711 F.3d 85, 93 (2d Cir. 2013). That said, the Supreme Court has delineated several factors for courts to consider in assessing the reasonableness of punitive damages, including: “(1) the degree of reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct; (2) the difference between the actual or potential harm suffered by the plaintiff and the punitive damages award; and (3) the difference between the punitive damages awarded and the civil penalties imposed in comparable cases.” DeCurtis v. Upward Bound Int’l, Inc., No. 09 Civ. 5378 (RJS), 2011 WL 4549412, at *5 (S.D.N. Y Sept. 27, 2011) (citing BMW of N. Am., Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559, 575 (1996)). In addition, no matter how egregious the underlying conduct, the court is required to consider the defendant’s financial circumstances in determining an award of punitive damages.

Applying the law, the court concluded:

Henestroza’s [the alleged harasser’s] actions were unquestionably reprehensible. Without rehashing plaintiff’s detailed testimony in its entirety, it is clear that Henestroza acted with malice and utter disregard for plaintiff’s rights. Henestroza sexually assaulted Ms. Antoine. He attacked her, strangled her, and threatened her life and the lives of her family. Plaintiff testified that Henestroza merely laughed when she confronted him about his egregious behavior, and even retaliated by docking her hours. Moreover, he leveraged his authority as CEO and his control over plaintiff’s work schedule and compensation to withhold her pay, apparently in order to compel sexual favors from her. Mr. Henestroza’s conduct was therefore not only personally reprehensible. As an employer, he abused his position of trust for unseemly, if not illegal, ends.

As to the specific amount, the court noted that it was adhering to a one-to-one punitive-to-compensatory damages ratio here. (The court awarded plaintiff, excluding interest, compensatory damages, including $200,000 for plaintiff’s emotional distress, in the amount of $380,141.).

It also observed that “[i]n sexual assault cases, courts in this Circuit frequently award punitive damages that are equal to or less than compensatory damages” and “[i]mposing a punitive damage award of $375,000 is appropriate under the circumstances presented here” which “falls within the broad range of punitive damage awards ordered in like cases.”

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