Employers accused of tolerating sexual harassment often would rather fight than settle, especially when uninsured. Their bottom line and reputation are at stake. Though most defendants at some point understand it is not in their best interest to be involved in a scorched earth legal battle, plaintiffs shouldn’t expect an early check.
A case in a recent USA Today article demonstrates how many sexual harassment cases play out. Sherielee Figueroa managed a Subway franchise in the Rochester, New York, area. After working in the fast food industry several years, she thought she found her dream job in management. Her experience with her supervisor changed it into a nightmare.
He commented about her sex life, made sexual references while talking to her and asked to see her breasts. The married mother of three complained to her district manager who did not investigate her claims of harassment. Instead, he scheduled a meeting with the two. The supervisor denied her claims and the district manager threw up his hands and suggested the two “hug it out.”
Figueroa declined. Instead she filed a complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights two weeks later. The next day she was fired. Her family endured economic hardship while she coped with anxiety and depression. In a subsequent lawsuit filed in federal court, Ms. Figueroa’s former employer, KK Sub II LLC, went on the attack. They dragged the litigation along and eventually forced the case to trial. They tried to portray Figueroa as a sexpot who invited advances and was unfazed by her interactions with her supervisor. The defense showed the jury a photo of Figueroa that had been posted to Facebook in which she wore makeup and a revealing top. The effort to blame the victim backfired and the jury unanimously found for the plaintiff. After the trial, one of the jurors stated the photo had nothing to do with the case and the jurors thought it was just an attempt to make the plaintiff look bad.
Figueroa had turned down a settlement offer of $90,000. The jury awarded her $425,000 (including $275,000 in punitive damages meant to punish the defendant, an amount more than what’s allowed under federal law, so it will probably be reduced to $200,000). The defendant will likely have to pay Ms. Figueroa’s attorney’s fees so the grand total may be more than $500,000.
This is not to suggest every plaintiff’s case is a winner and every plaintiff will do better at trial. Every case must be evaluated on its own merits. However, even when a plaintiff has strong facts and deserves justice, the plaintiff must be prepared for the defense attacks and, with her attorney’s support, be willing to stand up for herself over the long haul.
If you believe you’ve been discriminated against or sexually harassed at work, call Scott Fegley at the Fegley Law Firm, (215) 493-8287, send us an email at [email protected] or fill out our contact form. Mr. Fegley has 31 years of employment litigation experience. We Give You Peace of Mind.