York State Human Rights Law, plaintiffs can recover punitive
damages for discriminatory activity both under § 8-502(a) of the
New York City Administrative Code and under federal law." Id.
at 262 (internal citations omitted)). Because the two punitive
damages provisions are nearly identical, the court will discuss
the standard for punitive damages under Title VII.
In cases of intentional employment discrimination, Title VII
authorizes punitive damages where "[t]he complaining party
demonstrates that the respondent engaged in a discriminatory
practice or discriminatory practices with malice or with reckless
indifference to the federally protected rights of an aggrieved
individual." 42 U.S.C. § 1981a(b)(1). In the recent Supreme Court
decision in Kolstad v. American Dental Association,
527 U.S. 526, 119 S.Ct. 2118, 144 L.Ed.2d 494 (1999), the Court further
clarified the standard for punitive damages awards in Title VII
cases. Upon examining the organization of the statute, the court
reasoned that "[t]he very structure of § 1981a suggests a
congressional intent to authorize punitive awards in only a
subset of cases[.]" Kolstad v. American Dental Association, 119
S.Ct. at 2124. The court determined that "§ 1981a(b)(1) requires
plaintiffs to make an additional "demonstrat[ion]" of their
eligibility for punitive damages." Kolstad, 119 S.Ct. at 2124.
In interpreting the wording of the provision, the Court found
that the statute's terms, "malice" and "reckless indifference,"
referred to "[t]he employer's knowledge that it may be acting in
violation of federal law, not its awareness that it is engaging
in discrimination." Kolstad, 119 S.Ct. at 2124. The Court
concluded that "[i]n the context of § 1981a, an employer must at
least discriminate in the face of a perceived risk that its
actions will violate federal law to be liable in punitive
damages." Kolstad, 119 S.Ct. at 2125. Noting that this standard
rests primarily upon the defendant's state of mind, the Court
held that "`a positive element of conscious wrongdoing is always
required.'" Kolstad, 119 S.Ct. at 2126 (quoting C. McCormick,
Law of Damages 280 (1935)).
In the case of defendant ISI, the plaintiff has introduced no
evidence which could satisfy the required showing of "malice" and
"reckless indifference" to plaintiff's federally protected
rights. Defendant is a New Jersey corporation with its
headquarters in Hackensack, New Jersey. Plaintiff filed her
complaint with the EEOC in Newark, New Jersey. Plaintiff did not
introduce any evidence from which a jury could infer that
defendant knew that it may be acting in violation of the federal
law or even the New York administrative law.
The Court in Kolstad alluded to an alternative method for
plaintiffs to satisfy the required showing for punitive damages
liability. If a plaintiff has not shown that the defendant knew
of the relevant federal prohibition, a plaintiff could satisfy
its burden by introducing evidence of outrageous or egregious
behavior of the defendant to support an inference of an "evil
motive." See Kolstad, 119 S.Ct. at 2126 ("[e]gregious or
outrageous acts may serve as evidence supporting an inference of
the requisite `evil motive.'" Id.) The Court determined that
"[u]nder § 1981a(b)(1), pointing to evidence of an employer's
egregious behavior would provide one means of satisfying the
plaintiff's burden to `demonstrat[e]' that the employer acted
with the requisite `malice or . . . reckless indifference.'"
Kolstad, 119 S.Ct. at 2126 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1981a(b)(1)).
In the instant case, however, plaintiffs have not introduced
any evidence of "egregious" or "outrageous" behavior of the
defendants to support an inference of an "evil motive." Prior to
Ms. Robinson's termination, defendants provided her with
disability leave for the three months while she was recovering
from her accident. In fact, both parties admit that Ms.
Robinson's termination took place before Ms. Kaminer received
notice of the EEOC complaint. While the retaliatory denial of
post-termination benefits may certainly constitute culpable
behavior, it could not reasonably be construed as "outrageous" or
"egregious" behavior. Furthermore, with respect to the denial of
a severance package, ISI contends that it acted based on a
company policy against offering severance to employees who have
claims pending against ISI. Ultimately, ISI's actions cannot be
characterized as outrageous or egregious, and therefore do not
provide evidence to support an inference of an "evil motive."
In addition to detailing requirements for punitive damages
liability, the Court also listed specific situations "[w]here
intentional discrimination does not give rise to punitive damages
liability." Kolstad, 119 S.Ct. at 2125. One such situation that
the Court mentions is where "[t]he employer may simply be unaware
of the relevant federal prohibition." Kolstad, 119 S.Ct. at
2125. Additionally, such liability would not apply in cases "[i]n
which the employer discriminates with the distinct belief that
its discrimination is lawful." Kolstad, 119 S.Ct. at 2125. Both
situations apply to the instant case. As discussed above,
plaintiff has not introduced any evidence to prove that defendant
ISI was aware of the relevant federal prohibition. It is quite
possible that Ms. Kaminer was unaware of Title VII's prohibition
against retaliatory termination. Furthermore, it is certainly
possible that Ms. Kaminer believed that the denial of
post-termination benefits was perfectly legal — especially
considering the defendant's contention that ISI had a policy of
requiring a liability release before offering a severance package
to a terminated employee.
Indeed, the requirement that the plaintiff prove defendant's
knowledge of the federal law imposes a formidable, if not
unattainable, burden on the plaintiff. Such a rigid standard
leaves precious little room for any realistic opportunity for
employees to seek punitive damages from employers who
intentionally discriminate against them. Nonetheless, the Supreme
Court's opinion in Kolstad has interpreted the statute to
severely limit punitive damages liability, and this court must
abide by the standards outlined in the Kolstad decision.
Accordingly, following the reasoning articulated in Kolstad,
this court finds that plaintiff has failed prove that defendant
is liable for punitive damages in this case.
III. PLAINTIFF IS ENTITLED TO ATTORNEYS' FEES
A. The Award
The attorney's fees provision of Title VII,
42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k) provides, in pertinent part:
"In any action or proceeding under this subchapter
the court, in its discretion, may allow the
prevailing party, other than the Commission or the
United States, a reasonable attorney's fee (including
expert fees) as part of the costs[.]"
42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k). In this action, Ms. Robinson is the
prevailing party. She obtained a verdict in her favor, and was
awarded damages for her injuries. She is therefore entitled to
attorneys' fees from the defendant.
Ms. Robinson was not, however, successful on all of her claims.
As mentioned above, Ms. Robinson's claims of discrimination in
the terms of her employment were dismissed in an earlier decision
in this case. In Reed v. A.W. Lawrence & Co. Inc., 95 F.3d 1170
(2d Cir. 1996) the Second Circuit found that "[w]here the
district court determines that the successful and unsuccessful
claims are `inextricably intertwined' and `involve a common core
of facts or [are] based on related legal theories,' it is not an
abuse of discretion for the court to award the entire fee." See
Reed v. A.W. Lawrence & Co. Inc., 95 F.3d at 1183 (quoting
Dominic v. Consolidated Edison Co. of New York, Inc.,
822 F.2d 1249, 1259 (2d Cir. 1987)). In this case, the unsuccessful claims
involved a core of facts and legal theories that are completely
separate from those related to the successful claims. The claim
for discrimination in the
terms of employment involved ISI's treatment of Ms. Robinson
while she was employed with the company. Meanwhile, the
retaliatory termination claim necessarily focuses on the
circumstances surrounding her termination. The legal standards
for the two claims are also different, and involve distinct,
unrelated legal theories. Consequently, based on the standard
outlined in Reed, the plaintiff in this case is only entitled
to attorneys' fees related to the retaliatory termination claim.
B. The Methodology
The proper methodology for calculating attorneys fees is set
forth in the Second Circuit's opinion in City of Detroit v.
Grinnell Corporation, 560 F.2d 1093 (2d Cir. 1977). First, the
basic value of the attorneys services must be determined by
"[m]ultiplying the numbers of hours expended by each attorney
involved in each type of work on the case by the hourly rate
normally charged for similar work by attorneys of like skill in
the area." Grinnell, 560 F.2d at 1098. Then, the court may take
into account "[o]ther less objective factors, such as the `risk
of litigation', the complexity of the issues, and the skill of
the attorneys" to determine the final fee amount. Grinnell,
560 F.2d 1098. This court will assess attorneys' fees in conformity
with this methodology.
For the reasons detailed above, the court finds that plaintiff
is entitled to prejudgment interest on the entire jury award,
that plaintiff is not eligible for a punitive damages award, and
that plaintiff is entitled to attorneys' fees related to her
retaliatory termination claim.
The Clerk of this Court is directed to enter judgement for the
plaintiff in the amount of $23,000.00.
In accordance with the Memorandum Opinion filed Simultaneously
herewith, plaintiff is hereby granted prejudgment interest which
the Clerk shall calculate.
Plaintiff's request for punitive damages is denied.
It is further ordered that, in accordance with the Memorandum
Opinion filed simultaneously herewith, plaintiff's counsel shall
submit to the court an affidavit as to the number of in court and
out of court hours counsel for plaintiff spent on this case and
any other requests regarding counsel fees within 40 days from the
date of this order. Defendants response due 20 days later.
Hearing on same April 13, 2000 at 10:00 a.m.