The Sixth Circuit affirms a $350,000 jury award for a police officer who was transferred far from her home, in retaliation for complaining about sex harassment. The court rejects a bid by the department to reduce the award, finding that the jury's calculations of back and front pay - and award of compensatory damages for pain and suffering - are supported by the record.
Mys v. Mich. Dep't of State Police, No. 17-1445 (6th Cir. Mar. 28, 2018): The plaintiff, a sergeant with the state police, filed sex harassment complaints in 2005 and 2007 against a fellow officer (named Miller) at her Newaygo, MI post. The department determined the complaints were unfounded.
A commanding officer (Gorski) requested Sgt. Mys's transfer to another post, specifically referring to her harassment complaints and noting that as a consequence "she is detrimental to the continued effective operation of the post and has lost her credibility." As the Sixth Circuit summarizes, "Sgt. Mys's status as a sexual-harassment-complaint recidivist so strongly justified her transfer in Cpt. Gorski's eyes that he initiated the transfer process before the internal investigation into her second complaint had even concluded."
At first, Sgt. Mys was transferred to a post close to her home, in Rockford, MI, which enabled her to continue to care for her disabled mother. But because there was no vacancy at that post, through a collectively-bargained hearing process - before a Transfer Review Board (TRB) - she was transferred permanently to a post in Detroit some 180 miles from her home.
One ground cited for the distant transfer was Sgt. Mys's alleged "culpability," as cited in the hearing testimony of Lt. Schramm on behalf of the department:
"[Lt. Schram] specifically mentioned the complaints that she had filed against Sgt. Miller, her reluctance to work in Sgt. Miller's presence, and the responsibility that she bore for creating a 'hostile work environment' at the Newaygo post."
While Sgt. Mys continued to commute to Detroit for two-and-a-half years, she was unable to sustain the exhausting schedule and took early retirement.
A jury found that the transfer was in retaliation for the sex harassment complaints and awarded Sgt. Mys $350,000 in damages.
The Sixth Circuit affirms. It first holds that the jury had enough evidence to find that the TRB, though it had no specific animus against the plaintiff, was influenced by an officer who manifested an intent to retaliate.
"The jury's finding that the TRB would never have been convened had it not been for Sgt. Mys's complaints was neither unreasonable nor 'clearly against the weight of the evidence' ... And although the TRB, not Cpt. Gorski, wielded the ultimate power to decide where to relocate Sgt. Mys, Cpt. Gorski's desire to have her transferred to one of the Department's preferred and more distant posts was hardly 'remote' from the TRB's proceedings."
Lt. Schram focused entirely on aggravating factors in his testimony before the TRB that could justify Sgt. Mys's transfer, explicitly citing the harassment complaints.
"The TRB was apparently persuaded by Lt. Schram's testimony. It rejected all of Sgt. Mys's preferred locations on the theory that she needed a 'fresh start' outside of the Sixth District. But given that the TRB hearing was largely devoid of any discussion of Sgt. Mys's seniority, a reasonable jury could infer that the TRB rendered its decision based exclusively on her alleged 'culpability.'"
The panel also upholds the $350,000 award, which the department argued was excessive. It finds that $140,000 of the award could be sustained by back and front pay, despite that Sgt. Mys had testified at trial that her pension "equal[led] her $72,000 annual base salary at the time of her retirement." The panel notes that Sgt. Mys otherwise testified without contradiction "that the difference between her salary at the time of her retirement and the pension that she receives is $12,000 annually," and "the district court did not abuse its discretion by crediting Sgt. Mys's clear statement of her annual losses."
The panel also affirms the remaining $210,000 as compensatory damages for pain and suffering.
"Sgt. Mys's trial testimony is replete with references to the emotional distress that she suffered from the Department's response to her sexual-harassment complaints, the insensitive way in which it notified her of her temporary assignment to the Rockford post, and the TRB's indifference to the circumstances that motivated her fight to remain in the Sixth District. She also testified that retiring early prevented her from achieving her dream of becoming the longest-tenured female employee of the Department."
The panel holds that "[s]upport for the award can also be found from the fact that Cpt. Gorski contacted the departmental psychologist to give him a 'heads-up' before Sgt. Mys's temporary assignment to Rockford was formally announced, raising the inference that he anticipated the emotional distress that it would cause Sgt. Mys." Finally, the court notes that a $210,000 award for pain and suffereing was not out of range with other, similar awards affirmed by the court.