Posts Tagged ‘punitive damages’

No Way to Run a Railroad: Metro North Hit With Large Fine for Retaliation Against Injured Worker

Retaliating against employees who report workplace injuries is a costly proposition, as a major rail line in the Northeastern U.S. has discovered.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration today announced that Metro North Commuter Rail has been ordered to pay a retaliation victim a total of $250,000 in punitive damages, $10,000 in compensatory damages and to cover reasonable attorney fees. It’s the largest punitive damages ever in a retaliation case under the Federal Railroad Safety Act, according to OSHA.

The worker, who is employed as a coach cleaner for the commuter rail carrier, was retaliated against after reporting the knee injury he suffered on Nov. 17, 2011, OSHA said.

The behavior of the company’s managers was illegal and mean-spirited, according to this account provided by OSHA.

“While driving the injured employee to the hospital, a Metro-North supervisor also intimidated the worker, reportedly telling the worker that railroad employees who are hurt on the job are written up for safety and are not considered for advancement or promotions within the company.”

“Unofficial reports from other employees appear to corroborate the supervisor’s claims. For instance, one worker smashed her foot with a barrel while on the job, yet she did not file an accident report and showed up to work every day using crutches in hope of keeping her injury record clean. Another worker was injured when her hand was caught in a broken door but, like her coworker, she did not fill out an incident report for fear of reprisal.”

By discouraging employees from reporting workplace safety, Metro-North undercut its ability to address and fix the underlying conditions that contribute to these injuries, OSHA said.

Read more.

Gas Mart Sued by EEOC For Retaliating Against Manager; Government Seeks Punitive Damages

An Indiana-based petroleum company got coal in its stocking this Christmas from the EEOC, which said it has sued the company for retaliating against a manager after he filed a charge against it.

The commission is charging Bright Petroleum–which operates the Bright Market  food market and gas station in Lawrenceburg, Indiana–with violating Title VII’s retaliation ban by subjecting the manager to additional scrutiny after learning of his charge and his refusal to drop it. For that, he was disciplined and terminated, the commission alleged.

The commission says that in all this the company was “recklessly indifferent” to the manager’s rights. That’s Title VII’s standard for an award of punitive damages, which the EEOC is seeking against the company.

The EEOC and the courts come down hard on companies that retaliate because of the chilling effect it can have in punishing the complaining employee. And if the EEOC lets the employer get away with it one time, other employees might think twice about filing complaints when they believe there’s discrimination.

Here’s more about the lawsuit, and here’s more on retaliation from the EEOC’s website.

Punitive Damages Not Allowed, Iowa Supreme Court Holds

Now resuming my 50-state tour of the latest developments in employment law. Today we’re in Iowa, where the state’s highest court affirmed once again last week that the Iowa Civil Rights Act does not permit awards of punitive damages.

In this case, three female employees of a merchandise company located in Indianola sued the company alleging sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation, and seeking punitive damages.

A state district court granted the company’s motion to strike the punitive damages claim, reasoning that the court could grant only the relief that the state civil rights commission could authorize, and punitive damages is not included in that relief.

Affirming that decision, the high court summed up its reasoning as follows:

It all comes down to statutory intent, the court said. It said it had “clearly and repeatedly stated our conclusion that the IRCA does not implicitly permit an award of punitive damages.” Furthermore, no significant legislative changes have been made since it first made that pronouncement in 1986 that would hint at any legislative changes.

So there. Here’s the full text of the opinion.

Chrysler Liable for Punitive Damages for Ongoing Harassment of Plant Employee, Seventh Circuit Decides

A case this week out of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit illustrates that an employer’s initial response to a hostile work environment may not get it off the hook for damages if the harassment continues and the employer doesn’t ratchet up the response.

Chrysler Corp. didn’t do enough to prevent continuing harassment of a Cuban-American Jewish employee, and therefore, it is liable for punitive damages, the appeals court held this week.

The court summarized that between 2002 and 2005, Otto May, a pipefitter at Chrysler’s Belvedere Assembly Plant, was the target of racist, xenophobic, homophobic, and anti-Semitic graffiti that appeared in and around the plant’s paint department.

In reponse to May’s complaint, the head of human resources at the subject plant met with two groups of skilled tradesmen (like May) and reminded them that harassment was unacceptable. In addition, a procedure was implemented to document the harassment, efforts were made to discover who was at the plant during the periods when the incidents likely occurred, and a handwriting analyst was retained and used.

Despite these efforts, the harasser or harassers were never caught.

A jury concluded that May carried his burden and awarded him $709,000 in compensatory damages and $3.5 million in punitive damages.

In reviewing the case, the appeals court noted that it does not “sit as a super-personnel department.” However, it must assess the response of the actual human relations department.

That response was inadequate, the court concluded.

Speaking to the issue of punitive damages, the court said this:

 “If it was negligent to respond to weeks and months of death threats with a pair of meetings and documentation, what happens when that inadequate response does not improve over the course of a year? Two years? Three years? At some point the response sinks from negligent to reckless, at some point it is obvious that an increased effort is necessary, and if that does not happen, punitive damages become a possibility. The facts in this case do not force us to hazard a precise rule about when sticking with the same inadequate strategy becomes reckless. May’s harassment continued for years, the threats were extremely serious, and there was scant evidence of an increased effort over time.

And that was enough to warrant punitive damages, the appeals court concluded.

Read the case here.

Missouri Employer Pays Big for Retaliation

It’s pretty basic HR law. An employer should never retaliate against an employee for complaining about discrimination. It only compounds the employer’s problem.

Apparently someone in UBS Financial Service’s Kansas City, Missouri office didn’t get the message. A jury last month found the company liable for retaliating against a female employee who complained about sexual harassment. The employee, a client services associate in the Kansas City office, alleged that the company began investigating her after she complained of harassment to the workplace hotline and the Missouri Human Rights Commission and that it subsequently fired her in July 2009.

The upshot? The jury awarded the plaintiff $10 million in punitive damages, $350,000 in actual damages for emotional distress and humiliation, and $242,000 in back pay from the date of her firing to the start of the trial.

The harasser, a company vice president, got off easier. The plaintiff sued him also, but the jury found him not liable.

The case is Ingraham v. UBS Financial Services, Inc., Jackson County, Mo., Cir. Ct., No. 0916-CV-36471 (Jury verdict May 3, 2011).