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BRADY v. WAL-MART STORES

June 21, 2005.

PATRICK S. BRADY, Plaintiff,
v.
WAL-MART STORES, INC., YEM HUNG CHIN, and JAMES BOWEN, Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: JAMES ORENSTEIN, Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

For the reasons set forth below, based upon the jury's verdicts, I direct the clerk to enter judgment in favor of plaintiff Patrick S. Brady ("Brady") jointly and severally against defendants Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. ("Wal-Mart") and Yem Hung Chin ("Chin") in the amount of $2,500,000 and against defendant Wal-Mart alone in the additional amount of $300,002. The portion of the judgment against Wal-Mart alone reflects a total award of punitive damages of $300,000 on all of Brady's proven claims against the company based on the statutory cap of such damages in a single action, as well as nominal damages of one dollar on each of two technical violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 29 U.S.C. § 12101, et seq., alleged in Brady's complaint. The judgment does not include any award of back pay or front pay. Finally, based on the jury's verdicts, I direct the clerk to dismiss with prejudice Brady's claims against defendant James Bowen ("Bowen").

I. Background

  In his amended complaint, docket entry ("DE") 33, Brady asserted several claims against Wal-Mart, Chin, and Bowen based on his experiences in applying for and then having a job as a part-time sales associate at the Wal-Mart store in Centereach, New York, in the summer of 2002. Briefly stated, Brady, who suffers from cerebral palsy, claimed that Wal-Mart violated the ADA during the job application process by making certain prohibited inquiries before extending a conditional offer of employment, and then, after he was hired, further violated the ADA, as well as the New York Human Rights Law ("NYHRL"), N.Y Exec. L. § 296, by subjecting him to adverse employment actions — including subjecting him to unwanted transfers, a hostile work environment, and constructive discharge — on the basis of a disability and by failing to provide a reasonable accommodation for his disability. Brady also accused two Wal-Mart employees — pharmacist Chin and store manager Bowen — of having participated in the conduct giving rise to his claim of disability discrimination. Brady further claimed that the defendants' actions intentionally inflicted emotional distress upon him, and also complained of Wal-Mart's alleged negligence in hiring, supervising, and retaining employees. DE 33. By Order dated February 16, 2005, the Honorable Leonard D. Wexler, United States District Judge, granted in part and denied in part the defendants' motions for summary judgment: Brady's claims alleging negligent hiring, supervision, and retention were dismissed, and the remaining claims alleging violations of the ADA and NYHRL and intentional infliction of emotional distress were permitted to proceed to trial. DE 76.

  Judge Wexler selected a jury on February 14, 2005. DE 66. All of the parties subsequently consented to the referral of this case to a magistrate judge for all purposes including the entry of judgment pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Rule 73 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. DE 67. I then presided over the jury trial, which began on February 16, 2005, and concluded when the jury returned its verdicts on February 23, 2005. The jury found in favor of Brady on several of his causes of action and in favor of the defendants on others. Specifically, on the main charge of disability discrimination, the jury found that Brady proved that he was disabled within the meaning of the ADA (the defendants stipulated that he was disabled within the meaning of the state law), and that Wal-Mart subjected him to two adverse employment actions on the basis of his disability: transferring Brady from the pharmacy department to a position pushing carts in the parking lot, and creating a hostile work environment. The jury did not find that Brady had proved two other adverse employment actions: a transfer from the parking lot to a position in the food department, and constructive discharge. The jury found that Chin participated in the discrimination but did not find the same with respect to Bowen. The jury further found that Wal-Mart had a duty to offer Brady a reasonable accommodation for his disability but failed to do so, but rejected Brady's claim that any of the defendants intentionally inflicted emotional distress.

  On Brady's claims relating to the job application process, the jury found that Wal-Mart did not violate the ADA with respect to inquiries about prescription medications, but found that the company did violate the ADA by including a prohibited inquiry in its job description form. The latter verdict was entered at my direction: based on my legal rulings made over Wal-Mart's objections, the parties agreed that the record required the jury to find the violation with respect to the job description form.

  The jury awarded Brady $9,114 in economic damages based on his loss of back pay, $2.5 million in compensatory damages based on the emotional trauma to which Brady attested, and nominal damages of one dollar apiece on his reasonable accommodation and job application process claims. The jury also awarded Brady punitive damages on each claim that it found he had proved. Specifically, it awarded $4.5 million on the claim of disability discrimination based on adverse employment actions, $250,000 on the claim of failure to provide a reasonable accommodation, and $250,000 on the claim of a prohibited inquiry in the application process. To guard against overlapping awards, I asked the jury to specify the total amount of punitive damages is wished to award; the response was a total of $5 million. I did not solicit a verdict from the jury with respect to the equitable relief of front pay.

  Both sides now seek to have me enter a judgment that differs in some respects from the jury's verdicts on damages. With respect to the largest part of the awards, the parties agree that the relevant statutes forbid the full award of $5 million that the jury unanimously decided was a proper punishment for Wal-Mart's proven misconduct. They differ, however, as to how the award should be reduced. Wal-Mart contends that I can award no more than a single payment of $300,000 for all of the proven claims. DE 103. Brady argues that there are two distinct claims that can be the subject of separate awards: while he agrees that the awards on the adverse employment action and failure-to-accommodate claims must be merged into a single award of $300,000 in punitive damages, he asserts that the award of $250,000 for the prohibited job application inquiry was a separate violation of the ADA and may therefore form the basis of a separate award. He therefore seeks a total of $550,000 in punitive damages. DE 101. With respect to back pay and front pay, the defendants assert that neither is appropriate. DE 103 at 49-. Brady disagrees, and requests an evidentiary hearing to determine the amount of front pay that should be awarded. DE 101 at 4-5. II. Discussion

  A. Compensatory and Punitive Damages

  1. Damages Under Federal and State Law

  The applicable provisions of federal law allow a successful plaintiff such as Brady to recover both compensatory and punitive damages, but limits such recovery to $300,000 for each complaining party where, as here, the defendant had more than 500 employees during the relevant time period. 42 U.S.C. § 1981a(b)(3)(D); see DE 103 at 2. New York's law does not permit any recovery of punitive damages in such cases, but places no limitation on the amount of compensatory damages a successful plaintiff may recover. N.Y. Exec. Law § 297(9); see Weissman v. Dawn Joy Fashions, Inc., 214 F.3d 224, 235 (2d Cir. 2000) (citing Thoreson v. Penthouse Int'l, Ltd., 80 N.Y.2d 490 (1992)); Greenway v. Buffalo Hilton Hotel, 951 F.Supp. 1039, 1057 (W.D.N.Y. 1997), aff'd in part, 143 F.3d 47 (2d Cir. 1998).

  2. Punitive Damages — The Federal Statutory Cap

  Because applicable state law does not provide for punitive damages at all, Brady may recover the punitive damages awarded by the jury only to the extent consistent with 42 U.S.C. § 1981a. Several courts have held that the § 1981a damages cap applies in the aggregate to all of a plaintiff's claims. For example, after a jury in the Western District of New York awarded an ADA plaintiff compensatory damages in the amount of $420,300 on plaintiff's claims of discrimination and retaliation, the court reduced the award to $300,000 on the ground that the plain meaning of the text of § 1981a required that result. Muller v. Costello, 997 F.Supp. 299, 303 (W.D.N.Y. 1998), aff'd, 187 F.3d 298 (2d Cir. 1999); see also Hudson v. Reno, 130 F.3d 1193 (6th Cir. 1997); Fogg v. Ashcroft, 254 F.3d 103 (D.C. Cir. 2001) (citations omitted); Baty v. Williamette Indus., Inc., 172 F.3d 1232 (10th Cir. 1999), overruled on other grounds by Nat'l R.R. Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, 536 U.S. 101, 116-117 (2002).

  Brady seeks to distinguish such case law on the basis of three decisions: Robertson Oil Company, Inc. v. Phillips Petroleum Co., 871 F.2d 1368,1376 (8th Cir. 1989); Mason v. Oklahoma Turnpike Authority, 115 F.3d 1442, 1459-60 (10th Cir. 1997); and Atchley v. Nordam Group, Inc., 180 F.3d 1143, 1152 (10th Cir. 1999). However, as Brady concedes, all three of the cited cases arose in "other contexts," DE 101 at 4, and I find that none of the opinions overcomes the reasoning of cases such as Muller or allows a court to disregard the clear meaning of the federal statute. The underlying theme in the cited cases is that separate awards of punitive damages are appropriate where a plaintiff asserts separate claims that require varying standards of proof. But in this case, unlike those Brady cites, the only law permitting the plaintiff to recover the jury's award of punitive damages is the ADA. In particular, the jury did not find ...


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