Ever-increasing Court Awards Should Raise the Alarm

June 1, 2012

Ever-increasing court awards should raise the alarm

Published:  Boston Business Journal by Mary K. Pratt, Special to the Journal


Charla Bizios Stevens has put her clients on notice: Recent court decisions have raised the stakes in employment cases.

Much of the local buzz in employment law stems from a $1.6 million verdict against Brigham and Women’s Hospital, which the First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed in a ruling last August. The court affirmed the 2009 ruling against the hospital and a male physician in favor of a female neurosurgeon who claimed gender discrimination and retaliation under federal and Massachusetts law.

The case is part of a collection of recent decisions that are important not only for the sizable amounts awarded to plaintiffs, but because they expand what the courts can consider when deciding whether employers retaliated against employees who complain.

And those factors have employment attorneys like Stevens letting corporate clients know that they have to step up employee training and awareness to ensure that they don’t unwittingly allow the kind of behavior that will have them staring down similar claims and expensive court battles.

“Juries are now more likely to want to punish employers. They’re in disbelief that this behavior still takes place in the workplace, and there’s an element about wanting to send a message to employers that this is something that should not be happening in the workplace,” said Stevens, a director at McLane, Graf, Raulerson, & Middleton PA. “And employers have to be more concerned about making sure people are trained about what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate.”

Stevens, who practices in her firm’s employment, education and health care practice groups, said Tuli v. Brigham & Women’s Hospital speaks to this issue.

In the case, a federal jury in 2009 awarded Dr. Sagun Tuli $1 million for her claim charging that the hospital allowed a hostile work environment to persist. It also awarded $600,000 in compensatory damages for the retaliation she claimed she endured after complaining about her supervisor’s behavior and the hostile work environment.

David S. Rubin, a partner at Nutter McClennen & Fish LLP, said the case should make employers reflect on what safeguards they have in place.

“This is its own case, it involves just these parties and it’s specific to these facts and these parties, but they’re illustrative for almost any employer,” he said. “When those circumstances wind up together — a highly paid, sympathetic employee making allegations against senior management — they make for significant exposure.”

Last year saw some unusually high judgments that have employers and employment attorneys taking note:

A jury in Illinois last August awarded $15 million in compensatory damages and $80 million in punitive damages to a female employee who sued Aaron Rents Inc. claiming her manager sexually harassed and sexually assaulted her.

And a New Jersey jury late last year awarded a former dispatcher from YRC Worldwide Inc. nearly $22.7 million in a hostile work environment case based on perceived sexual orientation.

Recent court rulings also have employers becoming more tuned in to the broadening definition of what constitutes retaliation, said Matthew C. Moschella, a litigation partner at Sherin and Lodgen LLP.

Moschella said the courts in recent cases have established that retaliation against employees making claims against employers can be much more extensive than just firing the worker who complains.

“The parameters of the types of actions and people who can be included in retaliation claims are expanding,” Moschella said. “It’s a big part of what people should be thinking about — that the permissible claims and claimants are expanding, there’s a broader definition of what adverse employment actions are.”