A jury on Feb. 29 unanimously awarded a female employee $168 million in damages and lost wages, believed to be the largest judgment for a single victim of workplace harassment in the U.S. history (Chopourian v. Catholic Healthcare West, E.D. Cal., No. CIV S-09-2972).
The verdict awarded compensatory and punitive damages totaling $41.3 million dollars for the worker’s sexual harassment claim under Title VII, and almost $15 million for her Title VII retaliation claim, nearly $43 million in damages for past and future wage losses related to her wrongful termination claim, and almost $25 million in compensatory and punitive damages on her defamation claim.
The employee worked for two years as a cardiac surgery physician assistant in the cardiac centers of two of the employer’s hospitals. She submitted 18 complaints regarding patient safety, abuse of women and hospital conditions. She made numerous other reports to management orally about the behavior of co-workers, and specifically about vulgarity, obscene gestures, buttocks slapping, and other inappropriate sexual behavior, including discussions by male surgeons of their sex lives.
The employee, who holds master’s degrees from UCLA and Yale University Medical School, filed the lawsuit not long after she was terminated by the hospital, which for years denied there was anything to her complaints.
This case points out the need for training of managers who are the linchpin of making sure that a sexual harassment policy is effectuated. Consider the following risk management ideas:
• Managers should be warned against participating in disrespectful activities.
• Be mindful of the power imbalance — actively listen to employees.
• Do not be judgmental when receiving complaints of harassment.
• Acknowledge personal problems and take corrective action, even when it involves peers or higher level management.
• Seek out the risk temperature at work, don’t wait for complaints to arise.
• Listen to workplace rumors as they may be an indicator of a hostile environment.
• Involve human resources for guidance.
• Managers should not argue with an employee making a complaint.
• Training for management personnel, up to and including the executive staff is essential for avoidance of liability.
Termination of an employee who has made a complaint of sexual harassment should be done with assistance from Counsel. It is that act, as in this case that lead to a lawsuit. Missed opportunities to correct and prevent a hostile workplace can be costly, and damage reputations and relationships.
This case is useful as a template for what NOT to do!
Lindy Korn practices at The Law Office of Lindy Korn and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (716) 856-KORN (5676).