Jury Verdict Value of Emotional Damages Caused By Age Discrimination
Florida - Employment Law
Recently, Florida's Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit provided further guidance for determining the range for an appropriate compensatory damage award for victims of employment discrimination. In Ernie Haire Ford, Inc. v. Benjamin Atkinson, 2011 Fla. App. LEXIS 579, 36 Fla. L. Weekly D 222 (2nd DCA, Jan. 28, 2011) the Court of Appeals, on an appeal from a denial of a Motion for Remittitur, took the opportunity to provide further guidance on the appropriate range for compensatory damages for non-specific emotional or embarrassment damages when there is no evidence of physical injury or treatment.
Atkinson, age 54, was the wholesale manager of a large automobile dealership. He was fired, and a younger employee was promoted to take his position. Atkinson asserted that for several years, the general manager had referred to him as "old man" and that the reason why he was fired was because of his age.
During the trial, Atkinson testified that he was embarrassed, humiliated and depressed as a result of being fired. He had difficulty sleeping and lost his appetite. Still, he presented no proof of physical injury or pain and suffering. The jury awarded Atkinson $3.5 million in non-economic damages. The jury also awarded punitive damages of $500,000.
The defendant filed a Motion for Remittitur. The trial court granted the motion in part and denied it in part, reducing the punitive damages down to $100,000 but letting the compensatory damages remain.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals noted that in cases where a plaintiff presents no proof of physical injury or emotional pain and suffering, courts have been reluctant to uphold damages awards that exceed six figures. They cited to an earlier age discrimination case out of the Fourth District Court of Appeals which reversed and remanded a $1.1 million compensatory damages pain and suffering award with directions for the court to enter a remittitur. See City of Hollywood v. Hogan, 986 So.2d 234 (Fla. 4th DCA 2008). In that case, although the plaintiff, Hogan, was embarrassed and hurt by being passed over for promotion, he did not seek psychological counseling and experienced no physical injuries. In the City of Hollywood, the Fourth District held that a $1.1 million award shocked judicial conscience because it was a typical age discrimination case. The court then held that as a matter of law in a "typical" age discrimination case where a plaintiff experiences no physical injury and presents no medical or psychological evidence of emotional pain and suffering, non-economic damages should not exceed the $5,000 to $30,000 range.
The court also relied on a United States District Court case pending out of the Middle District of Florida, Stone v. GEICO General Insurance Co., 2009 US Dist LEXIS 109236, 2009 WL 3720954 at 6, where the court granted a Motion for Remittitur in part, finding that a jury award of $200,000 in compensatory damages for pain and suffering should be reduced to $50,000.
Based on these cases, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court's order denying the Motion for Remittitur and remanded the case to the trial court for proceedings consistent with the opinion. As of this time, the trial court has not conducted those proceedings.
This opinion, along with the earlier opinions out of the Fourth District Court and out of the Middle District of Florida certainly are helpful and provide guidance in evaluating compensatory damage claims in any employment discrimination case. At least in Florida, absent unusual circumstances, those damages should be in the $5,000 to $30,000 range.
*Craig, managing shareholder of our Fort Lauderdale, Florida, office, can be reached at 954.847.4955 or email@example.com.
Defense Digest, Vol. 17, No. 2, June 2011