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SEXUAL HARASSMENT: Kentucky Court of Appeals reins in damages award

07.01.2011

Janice Engle worked for five months at Vinland Energy Operations before being terminated. Engle sued her former employer, alleging that she was subjected to a hostile work environment, battered by Vinland’s owner, and then fired in retaliation for reporting the sexual harassment. As a result, she claimed to have suffered emotional distress, humiliation, and embarrassment. A jury returned a verdict of nearly $1 million in her favor, but the award was thrown out on appeal and sent back to the trial court for recalculation because the damages were excessive.

Facts
Following her termination, Engle claimed she was subjected to a hostile work environment and battered by Majeed Saiedy Nami, Vinland Energy’s owner. She claimed that she reported the sexual harassment to management and was then terminated in retaliation for reporting her complaint. In the lawsuit against both Nami and Vinland Energy, she alleged she suffered emotional distress, humiliation, and embarrassment as a result of the harassment.
Engle testified that Nami grabbed her rear end on a number of occasions during her brief time at Vinland Energy. The first incident allegedly occurred when she was introduced to him. After he grabbed her, she pushed him away and told him to stop. The same type of behavior was allegedly repeated several more times during her employment.

Engle testified that she complained about Nami’s behavior and was told by one management employee not to “make such a big issue out of it[;] he does it to all the females.” Nami’s alleged misbehavior continued, and after another incident of touching, Engle complained to a different supervisor. She claimed that once again, she was told not to make an issue of it. About two weeks later, she was fired.
Engle filed the lawsuit soon after her termination, and Nami denied her allegations. The case was tried before a jury, which ultimately awarded Engle $850,000 for her emotional distress and attorneys’ fees.

Court’s ruling
Nami and Vinland Energy appealed the jury’s verdict on a variety of grounds, including a claim that there was insufficient evidence for a jury to have concluded that they had violated the law. Vinland Energy argued that the conduct Engle reported was insufficient to create a “hostile or abusive work environment” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Kentucky Civil Rights Act (KCRA). The court disagreed and noted harassment that includes an element of physical invasion is considered more severe than harassing comments alone.

Because Nami’s conduct toward Engle was overtly physical, had occurred in the presence of other employees, and was accompanied by blatant sexual remarks, there was a sufficient basis for the claim to be submitted to a jury. However, the court overturned the jury’s verdict because of the large amount of damages awarded for emotional distress.

Under the KCRA, any damages awarded must be proportionate to the actual humiliation and embarrassment suffered. The distress suffered is measured by a standard with both subjective and objective elements, determined by the totality of the circumstances. Engle testified only that she was “offended” and “shocked” by Nami’s actions. The court found that her testimony was insufficient evidence of the detrimental effect of the harassment to justify the large amount of damages awarded.

The court specifically noted that Engle didn’t testify about any humiliation, embarrassment, mental anguish, or emotional distress she had suffered. She didn’t seek counseling and only spoke to her parents about the issue following her termination. The court found that her claims were disproportionate to the amount of damages awarded. However, it didn’t address how the proportional standard of evaluating proof would reconcile with federal case law, which doesn’t require evidence of severe emotional distress to warrant damages under an emotional distress claim. Vinland Energy Operations LLC and Nami v. Engle, ___ S.W.3d ___, 2011 WL 1756554 (Ky. App., 2011).

Bottom line
Any actions that are harassing in nature need to be dealt with seriously even if they are generated by a misguided sense of humor. In addition, when complaints are made against high-level employees or significant contributors to the company’s bottom line, you must conduct a thorough investigation and take corrective action, if appropriate, to reinforce the message that harassment of coworkers and employees will not be permitted.


 

If you have any questions or need help, please contact any member of the Greenebaum Doll & McDonald Labor and Employment Department. Find us online at www.gdm.com.

Copyright 2011 M. Lee Smith Publishers LLC 
KENTUCKY EMPLOYMENT LAW LETTER does not attempt to offer solutions to individual problems but rather to provide information about current developments in Kentucky employment law.  Questions about individual problems should be addressed to the employment law attorney of your choice.

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