NY lawmakers look to limit judges cutting jury awards after employer bias suits

New Yorkers who win employment bias lawsuits are often seeing only a fraction of the money allotted to them by juries — thanks to judges slashing the amounts — according to state lawmakers who are zeroing in on a legislative fix.

The reductions stem from a New York state rule that requires judges to lower verdicts if they “deviate materially from what would be reasonable compensation” in a procedure known as remittitur. Critics say it undermines victims’ ability to see justice through the court system and does little to discourage employers from changing harmful practices. State Sen. Andrew Gournardes is proposing legislation that would ensure those jury verdicts stand.

“What happens is you have this vicious downward circle cycle,” Gounardes said. “Once you start low-balling one victim, and every other case points to that same standard and then that’s how you kind of reduce and reduce and reduce till it becomes meaningless. So we want to try to stop that and change that.”

The bill currently making its way through the state Senate would only allow courts to lower awards in “exceptional circumstances which compel the conclusion that the jury was influenced by partiality, prejudice, mistake or corruption.” Gounardes said it was written to more closely resemble surrounding states.

For example, in New Jersey, remittitur is considered a “remedy to correct a grossly disproportionate damages award, which, if left intact, would constitute a miscarriage of justice.” Meanwhile in New York, attorneys who represent employees say awards are routinely drastically cut.

Plaintiff Moises Mendez was awarded a total of $3 million in economic, punitive and emotional damages in 2010 after he won a race and disability lawsuit against Starwood Hotels Resorts Worldwide. A judge cut that down to $10,000.

In 2011, Aubrey Chisolm won a racial discrimination lawsuit against Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. He was granted $1 million in punitive damages by a jury, but saw that sum reduced to $50,000 – a 95% decrease.

And in 2021, plaintiff Rodney White won a racial discrimination lawsuit against the New York State Office of Children and Family Services and was awarded $1.5 million in damages, only for a judge to later reduce it to $50,000 through the remittitur process.

Of the three main types of damages awards — economic, emotional distress and punitive — the latter two are the most commonly affected. That’s because they’re harder to calculate.

In defense of the remittitur procedure, Scott Green – a partner at Goldberg Segalla — said judges are often better positioned to decide on a dollar amount than juries, due to their experience in the court of law.

“Jury verdicts that are excessive, you know, headline grabbing, are a lot of times based upon emotion, right? The jury’s emotional reaction to what they’ve seen and heard, and they’ll render a verdict and award damages … that frequently are way outside the bounds of what the precedent basically says,” he said. “Judges have the depth of experience, legal training, access to precedent to make sure that the verdicts are right sized.”

But Julia Elmaleh-Sachs, a senior associate attorney at law firm Crumiller P.C., and member of the employee rights group the National Employment Lawyers Association, said the process weakens the human rights law under which the cases are brought.

“The New York State Human Rights Law is supposed to be this really protective and progressive statute, but it is undermined by remittitur because companies are discouraged from paying large sums of money and so they’re just getting a slap on the wrist for their behavior,” Elmaleh-Sachs said. “What is $50,000? That’s just the cost of doing business.”

Elmaleh-Sachs said New York’s remittitur rule affects plaintiffs long before they reach a courtroom because companies use it as leverage to discourage plaintiffs from advancing their cases and sometimes encourage them to settle outside of court.

She said it’s often the first thing lawyers representing employers point to when she notifies them a client is bringing a discrimination lawsuit against them.

“They say, ‘Okay, how much money does your client want to not do that?’ So right off the bat, you’re talking about money. And when you say a number, the first thing they say to you is ‘Oh, well, then they’re never going to get that in court,’” she said.

Last year, former Equinox employee Röbynn Europe sued the luxury gym chain, claiming she was fired because she was a Black woman. Equinox argued she was fired due to tardiness. The jury agreed with Europe, and awarded her $1.25 million in damages for the distress she suffered, and $10 million in punitive damages — figures that received widespread media coverage.

After four years of litigation, it was a reaffirming experience, she said.

“I don’t know if I’ve experienced validation like that in my entire life,” Europe said, remembering the moment she heard the verdict. “That’s a really powerful message to send to a corporation and to other large corporations. It’s enormous … It gave me faith in the justice system that I didn’t necessarily have before.”

Equinox later filed a motion to have the verdict be reevaluated or reduced. Europe ultimately settled for an undisclosed amount before a judge decided whether or not to grant the motion, according to her attorneys. That process left her feeling deflated, she said.

“To be perfectly frank, the negotiation process I didn’t find to be any less painful than the four years of litigation,” she said. “I had to sit in a room with a mediator with a judge and my attorneys and have someone look at me and try to convince me that I was getting a good deal. I don’t know how you can say that with a straight face to someone.”

Miriam Clark, head of NELA-NY’s Legislative Committee, said litigation in lawsuits like Europe’s is all about sending the right message.

“The only way to get a corporation to change its behavior is to get a big verdict against them that they are required to pay,” she said. “And so every time there’s a remittitur, the message just gets sent over and over again, not only to that person, but to all employees that this is really a relatively trivial matter.”

Europe said she knows a future law that changes the process wouldn’t retroactively get her the original award, but she doesn’t want others to go through the same experience.

“There were people I left behind at Equinox who went through the same thing, who I know would say something if they thought it was worth their time, and there will be people after me who go through the same thing,” she said. “Those people deserve the peace of mind that they have a shot at justice.”

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