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Stockmar v. Colorado School of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Colorado

June 8, 2015

VANESSA STOCKMAR, Plaintiff,
v.
COLORADO SCHOOL OF TRADITIONAL CHINESE MEDICINE, INC., a Colorado corporation, Defendant.

ORDER DENYING DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO SET ASIDE PUNITIVE DAMAGE AWARDS OR, IN THE ALTERNATIVE, FOR REMITTITUR

CHRISTINE M. ARGUELLO, District Judge.

This employment discrimination and retaliation case was brought by Vanessa Stockmar and Tanya Carleton, former employees at the Colorado School of Traditional Chinese Medicine ("CSTCM").[1] Both Plaintiffs alleged that they (1) were sexually harassed by their CSTCM supervisor, Vladimir DiBrigida, and (2) were the targets of retaliatory discharge by CSTCM. The case was tried to a jury between February 23 and February 27, 2015. On February 27, 2015, the jury returned a verdict in Plaintiffs' favor, awarding each Plaintiff the same amount: $1.00 in back pay, $1.00 in compensatory damages, and $50, 000 in punitive damages. (Doc. ## 100, 101.)

This matter is before the Court on Defendant's Motion to Set Aside Punitive Damages Awards, or, in the Alternative, for Remittitur. (Doc. # 118.) Because there was sufficient evidence warranting the jury's imposition of punitive damages, and because remittitur is not justified, the Court denies Defendant's Motion, as explained below.

I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

A party challenging a jury's verdict, particularly a jury's damages determination, bears a heavy burden:

It is a fundamental legal principle that the determination of the quantum of damages in civil cases is a fact-finder's function. The trier of the facts, who has the first-hand[] opportunity to hear the testimony and to observe the demeanor of the witnesses, is clothed with a wide latitude and discretion in fixing damages, pursuant to the court's instructions, deemed proper to fairly compensate the injured party.

Bennett v. Longacre, 774 F.2d 1024, 1028 (10th Cir. 1985). As such, "[w]here a new trial motion asserts that the jury verdict is not supported by the evidence, the verdict must stand unless it is clearly, decidedly, or overwhelmingly against the weight of the evidence." Anaeme v. Diagnostek, Inc., 164 F.3d 1275, 1284 (10th Cir. 1999) (emphasis added, internal quotations and citations omitted). A verdict must be supported by substantial evidence, Wulf v. City of Wichita, 883 F.2d 842, 874 (10th Cir. 1989), but can be based on "any competent evidence tending to sustain it, " Bennett, 774 F.2d at 1028. Additionally, the Court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, Anaeme, 164 F.3d at 1284, bearing in mind that the jury "has the exclusive function of appraising credibility, determining the weight to be given to the testimony, drawing inferences from the facts established, resolving conflicts in the evidence, and reaching ultimate conclusions of fact." Snyder v. City of Moab, 354 F.3d 1179, 1188 (10th Cir. 2003) (internal quotations and citations omitted).

Remittitur, which permits a court to reduce a damages award, is rarely appropriate. Specifically, the jury's verdict is "inviolate" unless it is "so excessive that it shocks the judicial conscience and raises an irresistible inference that passion, prejudice, corruption, or other improper cause invaded the trial." M.D. Mark, Inc. v. Kerr-McGee Corp., 565 F.3d 753, 766 (10th Cir. 2009).

II. ANALYSIS

A. SUFFICIENCY OF THE EVIDENCE

To recover punitive damages under Title VII, a plaintiff must show that an employer engaged in discriminatory practices with malice or with reckless indifference to her federally protected rights. Harsco Corp. v. Renner, 475 F.3d 1179, 1189 (10th Cir. 2007). "Malice" or "reckless indifference" do not require "a showing of egregious or outrageous" conduct, but rather, evidence that the employer acted "in the face of a perceived risk that its actions [would] violate federal law." Kolstad v. Am. Dental Ass'n, 527 U.S. 526, 535-36 (1999).

An employer may not be held vicariously liable for punitive damages, however, if a managerial employee's actions in perpetrating sexual harassment were contrary to the employer's good-faith efforts to comply with Title VII. Id. at 545-46; see also Deters v. Equifax Credit Info. Servs., 202 F.3d 1262, 1271 (10th Cir. 2000) (explaining that "vicarious liability applies to situations in which a supervisor perpetrates harassment himself, whereas a theory of direct liability is more appropriate where an employer fails to respond adequately to harassment of which a management-level employee knew or should have known.") To avail itself of the good-faith standard in defending against vicarious liability, an employer must, "at least": (1) adopt anti-discrimination policies; (2) make a good faith effort to educate its employees about these policies and the statutory prohibitions; and (3) make good faith efforts to enforce its anti-discrimination policies. McInnis v. Fairfield Communities, Inc., 458 F.3d 1129, 1138 (10th Cir. 2006); Cadena v. Pacesetter Corp., 224 F.3d 1203, 1210 (10th Cir. 2000).

Defendant first argues that there was insufficient evidence to support the jury's punitive damages award because Plaintiffs presented "[n]o evidence that Defendant knew about or ratified DiBrigida's acts."[2] (Doc. # 118 at 3.) This assertion is plainly contradicted by the trial record. "Actual knowledge will be demonstrable in most cases where the plaintiff has reported harassment to management-level employees." Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 673 (10th Cir. 1998); see also Deters v. Equifax Credit Info. Servs., Inc., 202 F.3d 1262, 1270-71 (10th Cir. 2000) ("When a company specifically designates a particular employee within the company as a final person responsible for enforcing that company's policy against discrimination, then by the company's own designation, information provided to such an employee is knowledge to the company.") In the instant case, Plaintiffs testified that they complained to Mr. DiBrigida about his own conduct; the trial evidence established that Mr. DiBrigida was the individual to whom CSTCM designated responsibility for its HR policies, including those involving sexual harassment. Plaintiffs also testified that they brought complaints about Mr. DiBrigida's behavior to several management-level employees on multiple occasions. Specifically, Ms. Carleton testified that she complained to CSTCM's CEO, Mark Manton, and its President, George Kitchie. Additionally, Mr. Kitchie personally witnessed Mr. DiBrigida's problematic conduct; for example, he testified that both he and Ms. Carleton received an "inappropriate" email from Mr. DiBrigida containing a photograph of a nude woman jumping on a trampoline. Similarly, Ms. Stockmar testified that she complained about Mr. DiBrigida's conduct to one of the CSTCM's Board of Directors, Yan Yun Wang. Further, Mr. Manton testified that Ms. Wang notified him about Ms. Stockmar's complaints, and also that Ms. Stockmar complained to him directly. These actions were certainly enough to demonstrate CSTCM's actual knowledge of Plaintiff's complaints.

Indeed, at the same time Defendant argues that CSTCM had no knowledge of Plaintiffs' complaints, it simultaneously argues that it responded to them "promptly, " pointing to, for example, the fact that it brought in an outside investigator, hired a firm to conduct on-site training of employees, and offered free counseling to both Plaintiffs. (Doc. # 118 at 4.) However, even if an employer "adduces evidence showing it maintains on paper a strong non-discrimination policy and makes good faith efforts to educate its employees about that policy and Title VII, a plaintiff may still recover punitive damages if she demonstrates the employer failed to adequately address Title VII violations of which it was aware." Cadena, 224 F.3d at 1210 (emphasis added). Additionally, the good-faith defense does not apply in cases involving direct liability; specifically, it is "negated by a showing of direct malice or reckless indifference to ...


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