Even in 2017, far too many New York employers think it is okay to fire a female employee because she is pregnant. Such employment discrimination is patently illegal. Not only do such actions harm employees financially, it also takes a psychological toll on their well-being, for which discriminatory employers can be held financially liable.
Judge Reduces Compensatory Damages but Affirms Punitive Damages
In one recent pregnancy discrimination case, for example, a Bronx judge upheld a multi-million award against a company that illegally fired three female employees. The three plaintiffs said they were terminated by the company's owner solely because of their respective pregnancies. One plaintiff said her desk was cleared out immediately after her boss suspected she was pregnant. Another plaintiff said she was fired just two days after learning about her own pregnancy. The third plaintiff testified that she was stripped of most of her job duties, moved to a “cramped, dusty storage area,” and quickly replaced by an “attractive, non-pregnant replacement.”
The jury was appropriately horrified by this and other testimony. In 2015, it returned a verdict in favor of all three plaintiffs. The defendants–the company and two individual executives–were ordered to pay $4.5 million in compensatory damages and an additional $1.5 million in punitive damages. The defendants then moved to set aside the verdict.
The judge declined to do that, but she did reduce part of the damage award. The $4.5 million in compensatory damages was largely based on evidence that all three plaintiffs suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following their terminations by the defendants. At trial, an expert witness testified that each plaintiff had been diagnosed with PTSD, which continued even years after losing their jobs. The defense never presented any evidence to rebut the expert's testimony on this issue.
That said, the judge held the jury's actual calculation of damages–$1.5 million per plaintiff, for a total of $4.5 million–was “excessive.” The judge based her finding on similar awards in other employment discrimination cases. Based on those other cases, the judge said an award of $400,000 per plaintiff–a total of $1.2 million–was more appropriate.
However, the judge also said the jury's award of $1.5 million in punitive damages–or $500,000 per plaintiff–was not excessive. Unlike compensatory damages, which are based on a victim's actual injuries, punitive damages are intended to serve as “punishment for gross misbehavior for the good of the public.” They essentially reflect the jury's disapproval on behalf of the community for “willfully and wantonly” injuring another person.
A court will only second-guess a jury's calculation of punitive damages if it is “so high as to shock the judicial conscience and constitute a denial of justice.” The judge said that was not the case here. Taking into account the reduced compensatory damages, the judge said the plaintiffs should receive $900,000 each, in addition to attorney fees and other court costs.
Have You Been a Victim of Pregnancy Discrimination at Work?
This case represents an important victory in the fight against pregnancy discrimination. Unfortunately, there are many more women throughout New York who face harassment or the outright loss of their jobs simply because they choose to have a child. If you are in this position and need advice from a qualified New York employment law attorney, contact the Law Offices of Mahir S. Nisar today.