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Damages for Emotional Stress

In Champion v. United States Postal Service, EEOC Appeal No. 0720090037 (March 10, 2010), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission upheld an administrative judge’s award of $125,000 for nonpecuniary damages (emotional distress damages). The Commission found that the administrative judge appropriately determined the amount of nonpecuniary damages to remedy the harm the complainant suffered for over two years caused by the discriminatory hostile work environment, including psychiatric disorders.

The complainant was a Postal Service employee who was transferred to the maintenance department at the agency’s processing and distribution center facility in San Bernardino, California. Within three months of transferring to the San Bernardino facility, the complainant injured her right knee while performing her job, which warranted receipt of workers’ compensation.

The administrative judge found that management’s actions after the complainant was assigned to a light-duty position constituted to unlawful harassment sufficient to create a discriminatory hostile work environment based on complainant’s disability and her prior protected EEO activities. The administrative judge also found that the agency failed to establish an affirmative defense that it exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct the harassment caused by two of the complainant’s managers.

Although the complainant requested nonpecuniary damages, she did not request a specific amount. The only evidence that she introduced regarding nonpecuniary damages was her own testimony at the hearing. She stated the ongoing discriminatory harassment affected her in the following ways: she was unable to sleep, she was required to take sleeping medication, experienced nightmares, was diagnosed with depression, became uninterested in doing the things she used to do, experienced pain in her back, had severe stress and was forced to lie down in order to relieve the back pain. The complainant also testified that due to the effects of the discrimination, she was under the care of a psychiatrist and a psychologist, and she had been diagnosed with major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder and panic disorder, and had been prescribed several medications. In determining the amount of nonpecuniary damages, the administrative judge relied upon the complainant’s testimony as well as evidence that the complainant’s psychologist placed her off work effective May 18, 2007, because of the effects of the discriminatory harassment.

After the administrative judge’s decision, the agency issued a final order affirming the conclusion that the complainant had been subjected to discriminatory harassment, but rejected the nonpecuniary damages award. The agency argued that the award of nonpecuniary damages was “grossly excessive” and far out of line with compensatory damages awards in other cases, citing to several older court cases involving sexual harassment. The complainant appealed the agency’s order denying an award of nonpecuniary damages.

On appeal, the Commission upheld the administrative judge’s award of $125,000 in nonpecuniary damages. The Commission was not persuaded by agency’s citation to outdated cases or its attempts to minimize the significance of the harassment. The Commission noted that the agency did not contest the finding that there was a causal connection between the discriminatory harassment and the harm caused. The Commission relied upon the duration of the harm and recent awards in cases involving similar harm.

Overall, this case serves as a reminder that when considering an award of nonpecuniary damages for discriminatory harassment, the parties should take into account the causality of the discrimination and complainant’s harm, the severity of the complainant’s harm, the duration of the harm and recent awards in cases involving similar harm.