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Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Judge slices $6.5M sex discrimination verdict to $100K, citing damage caps

By Scott Holland | Aug 4, 2017

Law money 10

A federal judge has shaved more than $6 million off a jury’s verdict in a 2011 discrimination case because the company wasn’t large enough to be forced to pay more.

In an opinion issued Aug. 1 in federal court in Chicago, Judge Andrea R. Wood granted the motion of Packer Engineering, Inc., to reduce a $6.5 million jury award to just $100,000 — $50,000 in compensatory damages to each of the plaintiffs, Danya Davis and Bernessa Wilson.

Davis and Wilson sued Naperville-based Packer, their former employer, in 2011 for alleged violations of the Civil Rights Act. They say they were subjected to sexual discrimination at work and then fired for complaining about the situation. On Feb. 2, 2017, a jury returned judgment in their favor, awarding Davis $150,000 in compensatory damages and Wilson $300,000, but also giving each woman $3 million in punitive damages.

In arguing to have the award slashed, Packer invoked the damages cap of Article VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which stipulates plaintiffs can recover no more than $50,000 from defendants with between 15 and 100 employees and $100,000 from those with between 101 and 200 workers for at least 20 weeks of the year during the alleged violation.

Wood said all parties agree the relevant years in this instance are 2008 and 2009. Packer submitted monthly payroll records for each year showing it never employed fewer than 15 or more than 100 people. The women responded by pointing to missing pages that would have bumped the count beyond 100, but Packer noted it only omitted references to divisions of workers who were not technically Packer Engineering employees. Rather, some were interns, while others worked for The Packer Foundation and Packer Environmental Facility Consultants, Inc.

Wood said “even if the interns are considered employees,” Packer did not exceed the 100-employee threshold for 20 or more calendar weeks in either year. At most it would have more than 101 employees for 19 weeks. The judge also chided Packer for not including full payroll records and indicating which employees it did not count toward the limit.

Packer also asked the court to apportion the reduced compensatory damages so the jury’s awarding of both types of damages would stand, but each woman’s total award would be $50,000 — $2,380 in compensatory and $47,619 in punitive for Davis; $4,545 in compensatory and $45,454  in punitive for Wilson, per Wood’s calculations — but Wood explained “the preferred method for reducing awards is to leave compensatory damages intact and to lower punitive damages as necessary to bring the total under the cap.”

As such, Wood simply reduced the compensatory damages to $50,000 and vacated the punitive damages because they exceeded the statutory cap.

Davis held a top post for Packer for about seven years in its technology litigation division before being promoted to vice president of organizational development in late 2007. She said male executives gave her sexually suggestive nicknames — including “Stripper Boobs” and “High Beams” — and made suggestive comments and requests for sexual favors in front of coworkers, as well as used derogatory language to refer to female workers.

Her original complaint also said high-ranking Packer executives and “other employees were watching pornography, making graphic sexual comments and utterances and even masturbating in full view of the employees,” and alleged several instances in which company officials instructed her to stop complaining and to not report Title VII violations.

The plaintiffs were represented in the action by attorneys with the firm of Foote, Mielke, Chavez & O’Neil LLC, of Geneva. Packer was defended by Tressler LLP, of Chicago.

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Organizations in this Story

Foote, Mielke, Chavez & O'Neil LLCU.S. District Court for the Northern District of IllinoisTressler LLP