Yesterday, in May v. Chrysler Group, LLC, the Seventh Circuit upheld a jury verdict in favor of a factory worker who endured years of racial and religious harassment, including frequent death threats and slashed tires.
After the jury rendered its verdict, including $3.5 million on punitive damages, the trial court granted a new trial on the punitive damages, and lowered the amount of compensatory damages.
On appeal, the court reinstated the jury verdict. It recited the facts that led to the case, and Chrysler’s efforts to find and punish the harassers. It never did find out who did the harassing, but apparently spent quite a bit of effort to prove that the plaintiff made the whole thing up, slashing his own tires, leaving himself death threats and graffiti. It also put most of the investigation in the hands of the wife of one of the suspects. After reviewing the evidence in favor of the jury verdict, the court summarized:
The bottom line in this case is simple, even if a little difficult to digest. May was subjected to repulsive harassment for more than three years. Chrysler suspected that May did it all himself. The jury, however, disagreed. Chrysler, it concluded, had not taken reasonable measures to stop the harassment.
The appeals court addressed straight on the ubiquitous employer mantra: “we take allegations of harassment very seriously.”
A good-faith effort at compliance, however, is not a matter of declarations about how much the employer cared about a victim of harassment. or about how hard certain HR employees say they worked to rectify the situation. When those declarations are belied by the employer’s actions, talking a good game will not immunize an employer from a judgment that it was reckless. The jury reasonably determined that Chrysler’s actions did not add up to a good faith effort to end May’s harassment, and, much less, that is actions were (at least) reckless.”
It’s not common to find a case so solidly in favor of an employee (and there was a dissent in this case). Egregious facts abounded here, and still the trial court though the verdict was excessive. There is still a possibility of the entire Seventh Circuit hearing the appeal, or possibly Supreme Court involvement.