• $1.5 Million Award Affirmed Against Company in Sexually Hostile Environment Claim
  • October 14, 2004 | Author: Thomas P. Kane
  • Law Firm: Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP - Minneapolis Office
  • On August, 26, 2004, the Eight Circuit affirmed a $1,500,000 award ($1,000,000 punitive and $500,000 compensatory) to the plaintiff in a Title VII sexually hostile environment claim. The employer had appealed the finding and the award on the basis that the claim was time-barred and that the jury should not have been able to consider punitive damages.

    Title VII gives plaintiffs 300 days, from the time of the harassing conduct, to file a charge. Since most of the harassing conduct in this case occurred at least one year before the plaintiff filed a claim, the employer argued that the plaintiff's claims were time-barred. However, the court rejected the employer's argument, reiterating that if at least one act contributing to the hostile environment occurred within the charge period, the entire period of the hostile environment may be considered in determining liability.

    The employer next argued that the jury should not have been allowed to consider punitive damages. The appellate court also rejected this argument, finding that the jury was allowed to consider punitive damages because it could have reasonably determined that the employer acted with malice or reckless indifference to the federally protected right of employees. The court cited that the employer subjected the plaintiff to forced touching, bordering on criminal sexual abuse, threats of murder, rape and other physical violence. The appellate court affirmed the award, and even though Title VII limits punitive damages to $300,000, the court ordered the company to pay the full amount because the employee filed both federal and state claims of hostile environment, and the state (Missouri) has no punitive damage limit.

    Appellate Courts differ in how stringently they apply the hostile environment test for a Title VII claim. In most cases, the court requires some form of touching in order for the work environment to be found hostile. In all cases, supervisors must take steps to change the situation when such a complaint is raised, or the plaintiff may be able to prove that the company had knowledge, disregarded the complaints and, in effect, perpetuated the hostile environment.