Monteagudo v. Asociacion de Empleados del Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico, No. 07-2341 (1st Cir. Jan. 26, 2009)

| Jan 26, 2009 | Daily Developments in EEO Law |

It is not typical that an employee with a Title VII sex harassment claim fails to complain through HR, gets to trial, and wins anyway. Here’s a case that shows how its done, with a verdict of $965,999 to show for plaintiff’s effort.

Monteagudo v. Asociacion de Empleados del Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico, No. 07-2341 (1st Cir. Jan. 26, 2009):  The employee suffered  physical and verbal sex harassment (forced physical contact, propositioning) by a manager named Arce. Apparently, at trial and on appeal, the big ticket issue was whether the employer had met its affirmative defense under Faragher and Ellerth. It was not disputed that the company maintained a valid anti-harassment policy, and that the employee never filed a complaint.

Here is the employee’s testimony about why she did not complain:

“At trial, Monteagudo explained that she did not report the sexual harassment ‘[b]ecause the person I needed to complain with were all friends.’ She added: ‘Either it is the executive director or the human resources director, they’re all friends amongst themselves. We’re talking about some managers [sic] versus an employee who virtually had started working a few days before.’ She claimed that the Executive Director, Pablo Crespo-Claudio (“Crespo”), was friends with Vargas and Arce ‘[b]ecause of conversations held by Orlando Vargas and Francisco Arce themselves,’ noting that ‘I tend to understand that if some people go out together to drink liquor, they’re friends who go out to be together.’ Crespo admitted in his testimony that he may have gone out for drinks with Vargas and Arce.”

The jury awarded the employee compensatory damages, under Title VII and Puerto Rican law, “as a proximate result of the sexually hostile work environment to which she was subjected by AEELA,” totaling $333,000 (doubled under Puerto Rico law) and that $300,000 in punitive damages.  Even before fees, the total award stood at $965,666.

The defendant appealed judgment as a matter of law on their Faragher/Ellerth defense, as well as certain damages issues.  The First Circuit affirms liability and the damage award.  It finds, though the facts were close, that the employee reasonably refused to invoke the company’s anti-harassment policy when all of the people she could report to were friendly to the harasser:

Vargas [Director of Human Resources and Labor Relations] admitted that he was friends with Arce. Monteagudo also testified that Vargas and Arce would often go out drinking together. Monteagudo was thus understandably reluctant to report Arce’s behavior to Vargas because of the closeness of Vargas’s relationship with Arce.

The more difficult question, however, is whether Monteagudo’s failure to report Arce’s conduct to Crespo [Executive Director]  was unreasonable on the basis of Crespo’s alleged friendship with Arce and Vargas. The only evidence that Monteagudo proffers for this friendship are conversations she overheard by Vargas and Arce and the fact that Crespo testified that he may have gone out with Arce for drinks. Admittedly, Monteagudo did not establish Crespo’s relationship with Arce as clearly as she established Vargas’s relationship with Arce; however, as we acknowledged in Reed [v. MBNA Marketing Systems, Inc., 333 F.3d 27 (1st Cir. 2003)], ‘juries are supposed to be good at detecting false claims and at evaluating reasonable behavior in human situations.’ Id. at 37.

The court also finds that the district court did not err in excluding testimony about the efficacy of agency’s the anti-harassment policy by AEELA’s Director of Administrative and Legal Affairs, regarding the efficacy of the agency’s anti-harassment policy, because the plaintiff did not contest this element of the affirmative defense:

“Unlike other circuits, we have not required that in order to overcome the second prong of the Faragher-Ellerth affirmative defense, plaintiffs must produce evidence demonstrating ‘that the employer has ignored or resisted similar complaints or has taken adverse action against employees in response to such complaints.’ See, e.g., Leopold v. Baccarat, Inc., 239 F.3d 243, 246 (2d Cir. 2001). Here, since Monteagudo limited her argument to the application of AEELA’s policy to her case, the district court was within its discretion to exclude as not relevant AEELA’s attempt to show that it had taken corrective measures pursuant to the policy in 2005.”

The court denies reversal of the award on excessiveness grounds, as well. 

“Admittedly the jury was generous in awarding this amount; however, the district court did not abuse its discretion in deciding that the award was proportionate to harm suffered by Monteagudo. As we expressed above, as a result of the sexual harassment she endured for several months, Monteagudo felt ‘like a piece of meat’ and wept every evening. After her constructive discharge, she testified that she suffered from depression and an inability to sleep.”

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