D.C. high court affirms $800,000 jury verdict in sexual harassment suit

Jessica M. Karmasek Jun. 6, 2012, 7:20am


WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) - The District of Columbia Court of Appeals last week upheld a $800,000 jury verdict against a lobbying firm for sexual harassment.

The district's highest court said in its May 31 ruling that although it agreed with the firm that the instruction of what constitutes a "hostile" work environment was incomplete, the error was "harmless."

The lawsuit was brought by Sasha Stamenkovic, a 26-year-old immigrant from Serbia and an employee at Campbell-Crane and Associates Inc.

He asserted two claims under the District of Columbia Human Rights Act, or DCHRA, for a hostile work environment based on sexual harassment and for retaliation, as well as a claim under the District of Columbia Wage Payment Act.

In particular, Stamenkovic claimed to have been sexually harassed for three years by Campbell-Crane's owner, Jeanne M. Campbell.

Among the many examples Stamenkovic recounted, he testified that Campbell, 69, swam nude in her pool while the firm's employees were in attendance, and made sexually explicit comments about a former lover, about Stamenkovic, and even about his bulldog, whom she described as having "huge balls."

Although he repeatedly rebuffed Campbell's advances, Stamenkovic testified that his immigrant status made him more vulnerable, and that he felt pressured to stay at the firm for fear of deportation.

Following a six-day trial, a jury returned a verdict in favor of the man on all claims, awarding him $800,000 in compensatory damages for the hostile work environment claim and $12,000 for his retaliation claim.

After the trial, the firm filed a timely motion for judgment as a matter of law or for a new trial.

In a brief order, the District of Columbia Superior Court denied its motion without a hearing. The firm appealed.

After the appeal was filed, the superior court awarded Stamenkovic $455,739.50 in attorneys' fees and costs, of which the firm also appeals.

Campbell-Crane argues that the lower court made instructional and evidentiary errors during trial and that, post-trial, it erred in denying their motion as a matter of law or for new trial challenging the jury's verdict on compensatory damages, and abused discretion in awarding attorneys' fees.

"Because an award of compensatory damages required a finding of subjective actual injury to the plaintiff caused by the defendant's wrongful conduct, we conclude that the jury, in awarding $800,000 to Stamenkovic, necessarily must have found that he subjectively suffered from sexual harassment severe and pervasive enough to have altered the terms and conditions of his employment, i.e., a hostile work environment," Judge Vanessa Ruiz, who retired in September 2011, wrote in the high court's 48-page ruling.

Simply put, the Court said the firm's contention that the jury did not consider whether Stamenkovic subjectively suffered from pervasive and severe sexual harassment is "impossible to reconcile" with the jury's decision to award $800,000 in compensatory damages.

"For appellants to be correct, the jury would have had to find that even though Campbell's conduct was objectively harassing (i.e., to a reasonable person), and Stamenkovic himself did not subjectively suffer from the harassment, yet this harassment proximately caused injuries to Stamenkovic the jury valued at $800,000," Ruiz explained.

"It is highly improbable that a jury would believe Stamenkovic's description of the sexual harassment but not his claim that he was seriously affected by it.

"Moreover, it would be either inherently contradictory (or against the jury instructions) for the jury to then conclude that an injury that Stamenkovic did not suffer personally nonetheless entitled him to $800,000 in compensatory damages to 'fairly and reasonably compensate [Stamenkovic] for all of the damage he experienced.'"

The Court said its conclusion is further corroborated by the nature of the evidence presented at trial.

"Stamenkovic testified that, as a result of the continuous sexual harassment and Campbell's threat to discontinue sponsorship of his green card if he resisted her advances, he experienced stomach pains, vomiting, shaking, crying, fluctuations in weight, difficulty sleeping, general rage, depression, erectile dysfunction and shame," Ruiz wrote.

The Court also pointed to the testimony of a psychiatrist who saw Stamenkovic 10 to 12 times over a three-year period.

"We conclude that, in light of the evidence presented at trial, the jury must have credited Stamenkovic's evidence that he was subjected to egregious and repeated sexual harassment over a long period of time and, based on that evidence, found that Campbell's conduct was not only objectively offensive, but also subjectively offensive to Stamenkovic, thereby creating a 'hostile' work environment," Ruiz wrote.

"Any other conclusion would lose sight of the evidence and the jury's award of significant damages to compensate Stamenkovic for injury he suffered personally as a result of the sexual harassment."

As to the compensatory damages and attorneys' fees, the Court said the superior court judge did not abuse her discretion in awarding them.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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