Myers v. Central Florida Investments Inc., No. 08-16291 (11th Cir. Jan. 6, 2010)

| Jan 5, 2010 | Daily Developments in EEO Law |

The plaintiff wins a victory here on appeal — she keeps a jury award of $103,622.09 in compensatory and $506,847.75 in punitive damages for her state-law battery claim, against one of the wealthiest real-estate magnates in Florida — which is blemished only by the loss on her Title VII and Florida law sex harassment claim.

Myers v. Central Florida Investments Inc., No. 08-16291 (11th Cir. Jan. 6, 2009): Defendant CFI is a giant in the time-share industry, and Siegel is its owner. According to the published decision, the employee endured a five-year period of propositioning by company CEO David Siegel, kicked off in spectacular fashion by his offering the plaintiff’s boyfriend $1 million to spend a night with her (borrowing a page from this now-forgotten 1995 Adrian Lyne film). It culminated in a public display of the defendant “feigning an erection” at the plaintiff during a charity event. The plaintiff tried to enlist the help of senior executives at the company to put a stop to the behavior, but they proved mostly unhelpful (or indeed, showed their support of Siegel).  By the end of 2000, the plaintiff was fired.  (One might have supposed that this case should have produced a good Title VII retaliation claim, but there is no mention of it in the opinion.)

The battery claim concerned Siegel’s touching and grabbing the plaintiff:  “Myers described a pattern of sexual touching from Siegel beginning in 1995 and ending in 2000. He touched her in the office, in the restaurant, in the spa, in the treatment room, and on the dance floor. He touched her legs, her behind, and
her shoulders. He touched her when they were alone and when other CFI employees were around.”

Defendant CFI sued the plaintiff in state court on a promissory note and other claims for $6,230.  Big mistake.

Plaintiff counter-sued CFI and Siegel under Title VII, the Florida Civil Rights Act and state tort law; the case was then removed to federal court.  Following a six-day trial, the jury awarded $102,223.14 in compensatory damages (equal to her last-year’s salary) and $5,276,640.00 in punitive damages against both Siegel and CFI for battery. On post-trial motions, the punitive award was capped under Florida state law to $500,000 (presumably with an interest factor that boosted it to $506,847.75).

The panel affirms the entire judgment.  It rejects a slew of challenges from the defendant concerning the amount of the compensatory award, the availability and amount of punitive damages and alleged trial errors.  In particular, the panel convincingly bolsters the punitive award: “Given the many years during which Siegel touched and harassed Myers in the workplace, his repeated and public humiliations of her, and his refusal to desist despite her repeated requests, the award can hardly be said to evince passion, prejudice, or corruption. The award does not reveal that the court ignored evidence or considered improper elements, nor is the award otherwise illogical. Simply stated, the trial court could find that the $500,000 punitive award bore a reasonable
relation to the damage that would flow from a battery preceded by so much sexual misconduct in the workplace.” 

It also turns back the plaintiff’s challenges on the reduction of the punitive award and the jury verdict on the harassment claims.  On the former, the jury (lamentably) was not charged to make findings required by state law (for punitive awards over $500,000) that the battery was motivated by a specific intent to harm and caused actual harm.  Hence, the $500,000 cap applied and the district court properly remitted the damages.  On the latter, the jury found that none of the harassing events occurred within 300 days of filing the EEOC charge (Title VII) or within 365 days (FCRA), and hence the harassment claim was time-barred.  And because the Title VII claim fell, the plaintiff’s claim for attorney’s fees fell with it.

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