Sexual Harassment Case Results in $300,000 Punitive Damages Despite Nominal Damages Award

In the State of Arizona v. ASARCO LLC, 2014 WL 6918577 (9th Cir. 2014) (en banc) Angela Aguilar claimed she was sexually harassed on the job, experienced workplace retaliation, was subjected to purposeful infliction of emotional distress and was finally terminated from employment after approximately 11 months working in a copper mine.

The trial, lasting eight days, ending with the jury finding ASARCO liable on sexual harassment claims (violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act), but not on constructive termination or retaliation claims made by Aguilar. Ms. Angela Aguilar was awarded $1 in nominal damages and $868,750 in punitive damages. Based on the statutory cap that can be found in 42 U.S.C. § 1981a(b)(3)(D), the district court reduced the award to $300,000.

ASARCO cited BMW of N. Am., Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559 (1996) as they argued for appeal that the 300,000 to 1 ratio of punitive to compensatory damages was in violation of due process rights. The United States Court of Appeals did allow that the cited “Gore” case was of relevance to the context of the case, but clearly noted a differentiation between the two saying that Aguilar, the plaintiff in the case against ASARCO, had asserted a claim (under a statute, Title VII, including provision § 1981 imposing a cap on punitive damages. Using this as a basis for argument, the due process issues that were raised in the Gore case are not applicable to employment discrimination claims filed under Title VII.

The Court also noted that the jury was given instruction from the district court not to award any nominal damages over $1 to the plaintiff, Aguilar. The Court also found no mistake in the district court’s admission of sexually explicit graffiti in bathrooms as evidence. The graffiti used as evidence was similar to the graffiti that was directed at Aguilar. The Court affirmed the award to Aguilar of $350,902.75 for attorney’s fees and other costs.

For additional information on sexual harassment in the workplace and how to handle hostile work environments in California contact your southern California employment law experts at Blumenthal, Nordrehaug & Bhowmik