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CUSH-CRAWFORD v. ADCHEM CORP.

April 14, 2000

TONIA CUSH-CRAWFORD, PLAINTIFF,
V.
ADCHEM CORP., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Spatt, District Judge.

  MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER

In what is apparently a case of first impression in this circuit, this Court must decide whether, in a Title VII sexual harassment case, a jury verdict of punitive damages can be sustained where no compensatory damages were awarded.

This case concerns allegations of sexual harassment and retaliation by the Plaintiff, Tonia Cush-Crawford, against the Defendant, Adchem Corp. ("Adchem"). Following a trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the Plaintiff on her claim of hostile environment sexual harassment under Title VII, and a verdict in favor of Adchem on the Plaintiff's claims of quid pro quo sexual harassment and retaliation. The jury awarded no compensatory damages to the Plaintiff on the hostile environment claim, but awarded $100,000 in punitive damages against Adchem on that claim. Presently before the Court are the Plaintiff's motion for a new trial on damages pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59 and for an award of attorney's fees, and a motion by Adchem pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b) to set aside the jury's verdict on the hostile environment claim and the award of punitive damages.

BACKGROUND

Briefly stated, the Plaintiff alleges that, while employed at Adchem, she suffered repeated unwelcome sexual advances and comments from her supervisor, Collin Mars. The Plaintiff claims that she repeatedly complained to Adchem about the advances, but that no action was taken on her complaints. Eventually, the Plaintiff was able to secure a transfer from Adchem's facilities in Westbury, N.Y. to its plant in Riverhead, N.Y., and thus escape Mars. However, she soon grew dissatisfied with the Riverhead facility and asked to return to the Westbury plant. Adchem returned the Plaintiff to Westbury, and to the supervision of Mars, although the company did place an intermediate layer of supervision between Mars and the Plaintiff. A few months later, the Plaintiff suffered an unrelated on-the-job injury, and never returned to Adchem.

DISCUSSION

A. As to Adchem's motion "to set aside the verdict"

Adchem's motion for judgment as a matter of law seeks to set aside the jury's verdict in favor of the Plaintiff on the hostile environment harassment claim and the award of punitive damages. A court decides a motion for judgment as a matter of law under Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(1) using the same standard that applies to motions for summary judgment. Alfaro v. WalMart Stores, Inc., 210 F.3d 111 (2d Cir. 2000). Specifically, the motion must be denied unless the court finds that there is such a complete absence of evidence supporting the verdict that the jury's finding could only have been the result of sheer surmise and conjecture, or if the evidence is so overwhelming that reasonable and fair minded persons could only have reached the opposite result. Ryduchowski v. Port Authority of New York, 203 F.3d 135, 141-42 (2d Cir. 2000); see also This Is Me, Inc. v. Taylor, 157 F.3d 139 (2d Cir. 1998); Concerned Area Residents for the Environment v. Southview Farm, 34 F.3d 114 (2nd Cir. 1994); Weldy v. Piedmont Airlines, 985 F.2d 57 (2d Cir. 1993). In making this determination, the court is required to view the evidence in the light most favorable to, to draw all reasonable inferences in favor of, and to resolve all credibility disputes to the benefit of the non-moving party — in this case, the Plaintiff. Ryduchowski, 203 F.3d at 142; Martinelli v. Bridgeport Roman Catholic Diocesan Corp., 196 F.3d 409, 425 (2d. Cir. 1999); Stagl v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 117 F.3d 76, 79 (2d Cir. 1997).

1. The verdict on the hostile environment claim

To establish a claim for sexual harassment based on a hostile working environment, a plaintiff must show that her workplace was permeated with "discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult" that is "sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment." Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 21, 114 S.Ct. 367, 126 L.Ed.2d 295 (1993); Quinn v. Green Tree Credit Corp., 159 F.3d 759, 765 (2d Cir. 1998); Distasio v. Perkin Elmer Corp., 157 F.3d 55, 62 (2d Cir. 1998). Whether an environment is "hostile" or "abusive" depends on the totality of circumstances. Harris, 510 U.S. at 23, 114 S.Ct. 367.

Courts must consider a variety of factors including "the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee's work performance." Id. These factors must be evaluated from both a subjective and an objective viewpoint. Id. at 21-22, 114 S.Ct. 367. In addition, in order to hold her employer liable for hostile environment harassment, a plaintiff must also show that the conduct which created the hostile environment should be imputed to the employer. Kotcher v. Rosa & Sullivan Appliance Center, Inc., 957 F.2d 59, 63 (2d Cir. 1992). However, employers are presumptively liable for all acts of harassment perpetrated by an employee's supervisor. Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742, 118 S.Ct. 2257, 141 L.Ed.2d 633, (1998); Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775, 118 S.Ct. 2275, 141 L.Ed.2d 662 (1998), unless the employer proves that it exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any sexual harassment by such a supervisor, and that the employee unreasonably failed to avail herself of any corrective or preventative opportunities provided by the employer or to otherwise avoid harm. Id.

While many of the facts in this case are in dispute, viewing the evidence at trial in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff, the Court finds that the jury could reasonably have reached a verdict in her favor on the hostile environment claim. The Plaintiff testified that, shortly after her hiring in June 1993, she was subjected to numerous unwelcome and upsetting suggestive comments and advances from her supervisor, Collin Mars. She testified that this behavior commenced almost immediately after she was hired, when Mars began telling her how beautiful she looked and would ask her to go to the gym with him after work. She also testified that, when she turned down his advances, Mars began complaining about her work performance.

Mars twice invited the Plaintiff on overnight trips to Toronto and Boston. The Plaintiff initially declined the invitations, and eventually agreed to go only because Mars would remind her that he was responsible for evaluating her performance. On both trips, Mars rented a single room for both of them to occupy, and attempted to kiss and fondle the Plaintiff, saying he wanted to make love to her. The Plaintiff rejected these advances and ended both evenings in tears. Mars propositioned the Plaintiff for sex a third time at a dinner with her mother on her birthday. In addition, the Plaintiff testified that Mars made numerous unwelcome comments about her appearance ...


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