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Aponte-Rivera v. DHL Solutions (USA), Inc., No. 10-1655 (1st Cir. May 25, 2011)

The First Circuit affirms a Title VII/Puerto Rican law verdict for the plaintiff, though remitting the award from $800,000 to nearly $450,000. The holding demonstrates that a half-hearted management response to sex harassment complaints can be as bad as no response at all.

Aponte-Rivera v. DHL Solutions (USA), Inc., No. 10-1655 (1st Cir. May 25, 2011): An female employee (a logistics operations manager for an international shipping company) complained in 2004 that her supervisor (Frias) created an "uncomfortable" work environment by overloading her with work and making sexual comments. The HR manager counseled both employees at that time.

The plaintiff, after a leave of absence, was assigned a new boss (Camacho) who supposedly made regular, disparaging remarks about women (e.g., referred to a woman in an authority position as "jefecita," or "little boss"). The plaintiff took a second leave of absence and returned to the same supervisor nearly a year later in November 2005. Camacho kept up the disparaging remarks and asked the plaintiff pointedly why she even botherd to return to work. The plaintiff filed another complaint HR in March 2006. She took another leave of absence and ultimately resigned in June 2006.

The jury ultimately granted a verdict to the plaintiff on her sex-harassment claim, awarding $350,000 in emotional distress damages. The district court ultimately allocated the award between her Title VII claim ($1) and the Puerto Rican law claim (the balance of the award). The court also remitted the award to $200,000, but because Puerto Rican law allowed doubling of the damages, the final award (with fees and costs) was $449,998.75.

DHL appealed the denial of judgment as a matter of law and new trial motions, but the First Circuit affirms in full. Notably, the panel holds that the employer failed to establish its Faragher/Ellerth defense. DHL argued that the plaintiff neglected to make timely complaints about Camacho's harassment, and that the plaintiff had even praised HR's positive efforts to stem the behavior. While the panel finds the issue close, it holds that the jury could have found that DHL  did not prove that it reasonably responded to the complaints:

"Aponte later testified that the harassment at work only temporarily improved after the meeting, and the situation soon 'turned totally hostile.' Specifically, she felt 'pressure' from the work tasks given her, and [supervisors] Camacho and Frias were 'underestimating' her, being 'disrespectful' to her, and 'constantly' pressuring her about backlogged work. Aponte took a leave of absence in April 2006, and eventually resigned from her position at DHL in June 2006. She maintains that her decision not to file another formal complaint prior to resigning was understandable, given the fact that her prior complaints 'had only resulted in a worsening of her circumstances.'

"A reasonable jury could find that Aponte availed herself of DHL's corrective opportunities without experiencing a lasting improvement in her work situation. She complained in writing on two separate occasions, and testified that she ultimately had to quit her job in order to avoid the hostile situation."

The panel also affirmed the award, as remitted, finding $200,000 reasonable even in the absence of evidence of long-term injury and the lack of corroborating medical testimony. It affirmed denial of the new trial motion (alleging trial error because of several evidence rulings).

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