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Recent Appellate Decision Expanding Emotional Distress Award In a Discrimination and Retaliation Case

The First Department, an appellate court located in New York City, just issued a significant decision that supports larger awards for emotional distress damages in discrimination cases. In Madrigal v. Montefiore Medical Center, 2021 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 532 (1st Dept. Feb. 2, 2021), the plaintiff alleged a vicious hostile work environment, where she was called “that fucking Mexican,” “that fucking Spanish,” “the fucking Mexican bitch,” “fucking fat ass” or simply “that bitch.” A Bronx jury awarded the plaintiff $4,424,000 million, namely $1,500,000 in damages for emotional distress on her claim for hostile work environment, $2,100,000 for mental anguish from the termination of employment, $824,000 in lost wages for retaliatory termination under the State and City Human Rights Law.

In response to a motion made by the Defendant to set aside the verdict, the lower court reduced the award to a total of $523,805, based on $250,000 for pain and suffering for the hostile work environment, $123,805 for lost wages and $150,000 for the retaliation claim.

The appeals court found that the reduction was too extreme but agreed that some reduction of the jury’s award was warranted. Specifically, the First Department ordered a new trial unless the plaintiff agreed to a total of $1,7500,000, namely $1,000,000 for mental anguish based on retaliation and $750,000 for emotional distress based on a hostile work environment claim,

The appeals court also reinstated the plaintiff’s claim for battery, based on one of the individual defendants holding the plaintiff’s arm and repeatedly hitting her in the face and head with a telephone receiver. The jury had awarded damages of $1,585,000 for that attack, but the lower court dismissed the claim entirely. The First Department, however, reduced the award to $750,000.

The appeals court also held that the lower court was wrong to have dismissed the plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages.

It is incredibly significant that the First Department’s affirmed emotional distress damages that total $1.75 million. While the court found that the plaintiff’s claims presented “uniquely abhorrent circumstances,” the court nonetheless found that “the awards were reduced to levels that were disproportionately low.” This decision should cause employers to recognize that a jury can award substantial numbers for emotional distress in discrimination cases.

The Madrigal decision also demonstrates how a jury’s verdict is not the final say. Both the trial court and the appellate court have the power to alter, or even dismiss, the award. Even the numbers that the First Department proposed were not final, since the plaintiff had to either accept them or face a new trial on damages. Litigation is always uncertain.

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