Quigley v. Winter, No. 08-3630 (8th Cir. Mar. 16, 2010)

| Mar 15, 2010 | Daily Developments in EEO Law |

Under the Fair Housing Act, a jury awards — and the Eighth Circuit today affirms — a verdict for sexual harassment of a renter by her landlord, including $13,685.00 in compensatory damages and $250,000.00 in punitive damages (reduced by the district court to $20,527.50). The Eighth Circuit readjusts the attorney’s fee (over a dissent) upward from $20,000 to $78,044.33, and bumps the punitive award up to $54,750.00.

Quigley v. Winter, No. 08-3630 (8th Cir. Mar. 16, 2010): The plaintiff resided in a low-income housing development, subsidized by Section 8 vouchers.  The landlord, according to the trial record, rubbed the tenant’s stomach and his own genitals, entered the property while the plaintiff was away (and handled her clothes), walked in on the tenant and teen daughter at night, sat uninvited in their living room, implied that he was peeping in on them, made suggestive comments and even comment on the 14-year-old daughter looks.  After a five-day trial, the jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff.

The panel affirms the verdict entirely.  It holds that there was sufficient evidence, on both a hostile environment and quid pro quo theory, to support the judgment.  The opinions summarizes:

“Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Quigley, we conclude Quigley presented sufficient evidence of numerous unwanted interactions of a sexual nature that interfered with Quigley’s use and enjoyment of her home. Quigley testified Winter subjected her to unwanted touching on two occasions, made sexually suggestive comments, rubbed his genitals in front of her, placed several middle of the night phone calls to her home, made repeated unannounced visits, and, on one occasion, while Winter lay on Quigley’s couch, had to be told to leave her home at least three times before he complied. We emphasize that Winter subjected Quigley to these unwanted interactions in her own home, a place where Quigley was entitled to feel safe and secure and need not flee, which makes Winter’s conduct even more egregious.”

Notably, the panel also affirmed the verdict under the section of the FAA that prohibits coercion, intimidation, and interference, under 42 U.S.C. § 3617 (a section with an analog in the ADA). The landlord contended that there was no proof of actionable retaliation, but the panel observed that “retaliation is only one form of conduct prohibited under § 3617.”  It also rejects arguments based on alleged trial errors, in particular evidence that three women, former tenants, were also harassed by the defendant. “Our review of the trial transcript reveals the district court carefully analyzed the admissibility of each witness’s testimony. The district court refused to permit Mary Davis, another former tenant of Winter, to testify after hearing her proposed testimony outside the presence of the jury.”

The panel affirms, as well, the punitive damage verdict, but reverses the district court’s order dropping the award to $20,527.50. “While we agree with the district court that the jury’s punitive damage award was excessive, we disagree with the district court’s assessment that $20,527.50, which is one and a half times the compensatory award, sufficiently reflects the reprehensibility of Winter’s conduct. We conclude an appropriate punitive damages award in this case is $54,750. This amount is four times greater than Quigley’s compensatory damages ($13,685.00), which we find is an appropriate ratio under the circumstances of this case.”

Finally, the panel majority holds that the district court abused its discretion in cutting back the attorney fee award, and refusing to apply a lodestar analysis.  The opinion summarizes the district court’s basic approach: 

“The district court  . . . noted Quigley’s case ‘is not a two bit case . . . [but] there is still a matter of justice, there is still a matter of basic fairness, there is still a matter of equity.’ The district court declared its belief that it was ‘appropriate to determine or consider the effect on [Winter], whether he can pay [the attorney fees] or not.’ The district court concluded, ‘[While they certainly are good lawyers and they certainly did a good job, . . . attorney fees in the sum of $20,000.00 are appropriate.'”

Holds the majority, “While we agree with Quigley that the district court abused its discretion in significantly reducing Quigley’s requested attorney fees without conducting the proper analysis and in basing its decision on unsupported considerations, we do agree with the district court’s determination that Quigley’s attorney fees request was excessive.”  The panel majority, applying the standards to the record, reduced the law firm’s hours by one-third and then applied a straight lodestar calculation to the reduced hours to produce a final figure of $78,044.33.  (Judge Gruender dissented only with respect to this issue, holding that the calculation ought to have been left to the district court on remand.)

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