It goes without saying that employers who allow sexual harassment or battery in their workplace are asking for trouble, right? It goes without saying that an employer who ignores complaints of sexual harassment or battery in their workplace is asking for trouble, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t it also go without saying that firing an employee who complains of such conduct is begging to be sued? You would think so. Apparently, not everyone got that memo. The upside of such spectacular allegations is that they allow the rest of us to learn some valuable lessons, without getting ourselves into hot water. Yes, I do have a specific case in mind. (You knew that though, didn’t you?) Read on and let’s see what we can learn. The case is Madrigal v Montefiore Medical Center. This one apparently has a lot of allegations and the history is a bit convoluted. Here is a very basic version of what went down:
Blanca Madrigal worked as a lab technician at Montefiore Medical Center. Ms. Madrigal alleged years of harassment, a hostile work environment, and battery. Here are just a few of the allegations: She was called “that fucking Mexican,” “that fucking Spanish,” “the fucking Mexican bitch,” “fucking fat ass” or simply “that bitch, given demeaning assignments, not given to others. A manager “lewdly suggested that she sit on his lap, and that a few days later, while plaintiff was reaching into the breakroom refrigerator, he approached her from behind, wedged himself against her, and rubbed his penis against her backside…” Another supervisor “struck plaintiff with a telephone handset, Ms. Madrigal repeatedly complained about the behavior (mostly from supervisors). Not only did the hospital ignore her complaints, but ultimately it fired her and even admitted it did so because of her “false accusations”.
The years-long campaign of harassment and abuse took its toll on Ms. Madrigal. She began suffering panic attacks, anxiety. Her symptoms included sleeplessness, shortness of breath, necessitating sleep, and anti-anxiety medications. Her termination caused her to slip into depression, from which she apparently still had not recovered, even at the time of trial, years later.
That brings me to the next piece– the lawsuit. (Did anyone not see that coming?) Ms. Madrigal sued, alleging sex discrimination, harassment, hostile work environment, and retaliation under New York State and City Human Rights Laws. She won a total jury verdict of $6 million. Does that sound like justice? Don’t get too excited. The hospital moved for reduction of the damages and a dismissal of her claim for punitive damages, notwithstanding the jury verdict. We’re not done yet, though. The trial judge granted the motion, reducing the total verdict to $523,805, effectively dismissing her battery claim, and dismissed her claim for punitive damages.
Ms. Madrigal appealed. The NYS Supreme Court Appellate Division, 1st Dept reversed. On her claims for battery, emotional distress (hostile work environment), and emotional distress (retaliation) it re-modified to the damages to $2.5m or alternatively granted a new trial. The court also reinstated the punitive damages claim, ordering a new trial.
I’m tempted not to even bother with the takeaways, because, well, should I really even need to state them? Then again, for an employer to have been found by a jury to have behaved so egregiously suggests that, yes, I still do need to spell them out, so here they are (at least the key ones anyway):
- Never, ever ignore complaints of harassment, discrimination, battery or any mistreatment of any employee. Do a prompt and thorough investigation;
- If the evidence supports the case, take prompt, appropriate disciplinary action–regardless of how high up or popular the perpetrator is;
- Don’t take adverse action against anyone who complains of harassment, discrimination or similar mistreatment (or who reports or cooperates in an investigation of such allegations) even if you find no basis for their allegations. Retaliation is a separate claim and you can still end up paying damages on that claim even if you “win” on the underlying claim of harassment/discrimination;
- If you do find you need to discipline someone who has recently complained of harassment, discrimination or similar mistreatment, make sure you have solid documentation that the reason is completely independent of their complaint.
If your organization is the subject of similar allegations and if there is ample supporting evidence, you might think of settling — just saying…
I think that’s enough for now. See you next time…
Watch the latest video clip in my series, “Ask the Employer’s Lawyer: My Employee Has Exhausted All Her FMLA Leave Time. What do I do?
Watch my television interview on Stop My Crisis with Vivian Gaspar.
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