What are emotional distress damages for a sexual harassment claim?

By Douglas Lipsky

Victims of sexual harassment often suffer emotional distress. The extent of the distress understandably varies, as do the awards. But the law does provide for compensation for emotional distress.

A plaintiff who prevails on a sexual harassment claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the New York State Human Rights Law, or the New York City Human Rights Law, may recover compensatory damages for “emotional pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of life, and other nonpecuniary losses.” The precise amount of compensatory damages in any given case “depends on a unique set of facts and circumstances.”

Emotional distress awards within the Second Circuit are generally grouped into three categories: “garden-variety,”“significant” and “egregious.” In “garden variety” emotional distress claims, the evidence of mental suffering is usually limited to plaintiff’s testimony, who describes his or her injury in vague or conclusory terms, without relating either the severity or consequences of the injury. “Such claims typically lack extraordinary circumstances and are not supported by any medical corroboration. Garden variety emotional distress claims generally merit $30,000 to $125,000 awards.” The Second Circuit has explained that it has “affirmed awards of $125,000 each to plaintiff for emotional distress resulting from age discrimination where the evidence of emotional distress consisted only of testimony establishing shock, nightmares, sleeplessness, humiliation, and other subjective distress.”

Unlike garden-variety emotional distress claims,“significant” emotional distress claims “are based on more substantial harm or more offensive conduct, are sometimes supported by medical testimony and evidence, evidence of treatment by a healthcare professional and/or medication, and testimony from other, corroborating witnesses.” Finally,“egregious” emotional distress claims “generally involve either ‘outrageous or shocking’ discriminatory conduct or a significant impact on the physical health of the plaintiff.”

Wherethe emotional distress is more severe, courts have naturally approved greater awards. See Alubino v. City of New York, 67 A.D.3d 407 (1st Dep’t 2009) (affirming $491,706 in emotional distress damages when the discriminatory and harassing conduct caused the plaintiff, anxiety, panic attacks, experienced suicidal ideation and took numerous medications to combat depression and anxiety); Smith v. Tiffany & Co., 224 A.D.2d 332, 638 N.Y.S.2d 454, 454 (1st Dep’t 1996) ($300,000 in compensatory damages under the NYSHRL for emotional distress caused by “constant, egregious, and blatant” discriminatory conduct); Quinn v. Nassau County Police Dep’t, 53 F. Supp. 2d 347, 362 (E.D.N.Y. 1999) ($250,000 in compensatory damages for emotional distress from sexual orientation discrimination that was limited to discriminatory comments).

It takes an experienced sexual harassment lawyer to navigate these claims. If you have questions about sexual harassment or emotional distress damages, you should contact a sexual harassment lawyer specialist at Lipsky Lowe.

About the Author
Douglas Lipsky is a co-founding partner of Lipsky Lowe LLP. He has extensive experience in all areas of employment law, including discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile work environment, retaliation, wrongful discharge, breach of contract, unpaid overtime, and unpaid tips. He also represents clients in complex wage and hour claims, including collective actions under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and class actions under the laws of many different states. If you have questions about this article, contact Douglas today.