774 F.3d 140 (2nd Cir. 2014), 13-561, Turley v. ISG Lackawanna, Inc.
|Citation:||774 F.3d 140|
|Opinion Judge:||Sack, Circuit Judge :|
|Party Name:||Elijah Turley, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. ISG Lackawanna, Inc., ISG Lackawanna, LLC, Mittal Steel USA Lackawanna Inc., Larry D. Sampsell, Gerald C. Marchand, Thomas Jaworski, Mittal Steel USA, Inc. d/b/a/ Arcelor-Mittal USA, Inc., Mittal Steel USA Inc., a/k/a/ ArcelorMittal Steel, Arcelor Mittal Lackawanna, LLC f/k/a/ ISG Lackawanna, LLC, Defendants-Ap|
|Attorney:||RICHARD T. SULLIVAN, Harris Beach PLLC, Buffalo, N.Y. (Ryan J. Mills and Mary C. Fitzgerald, Brown & Kelly LLP, Buffalo, NY, on the brief), for Plaintiff-Appellee. EVAN M. TAGER, Mayer Brown LLP, Washington, DC (Miriam R. Nemetz, Mayer Brown LLP, Washington, DC, and Lynn A. Kappelman and Dawn Red...|
|Judge Panel:||Before: KATZMANN, Chief Judge, SACK, Circuit Judge, and RAKOFF,[*] District Judge.|
|Case Date:||December 17, 2014|
|Court:||United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit|
Plaintiff, a longtime steelworker in Lackawanna, New York, endured racial insults, intimidation, and degradation over more than three years, including slurs, evocations of the Ku Klux Klan, statements comparing black men to apes, death threats, and placement of a noose dangling from the plaintiff’s automobile. Supervisorsʹ meager efforts failed to stop the escalating abuse. Managers often... (see full summary)
Argued February 26, 2014.
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The defendants appeal from an amended judgment entered in the United States District Court for the Western District of New York (William M. Skretny, Chief Judge) on February 5, 2013, arising from employment discrimination and racial harassment claims against them. We conclude that the district court correctly instructed the jury as to employer liability, that the jury could find that the plaintiff's direct employer and the parent company constituted a single employer for the purposes of federal and state non-discrimination statutes, that the jury's verdict as to intentional infliction of emotional distress was supported by the evidence, and that the jury's compensatory damages award was proper. We also conclude, however, that the district court erred in failing to further reduce the punitive damages awards.
This is an appeal from an amended judgment of the United States District Court for the Western District of New York (William M. Skretny, Chief Judge ) filed February 5, 2013, on a multimillion-dollar jury award (reduced by the district court on remittitur) for compensatory and punitive damages for violations of state and federal anti-discrimination statutes, and for intentional infliction of emotional distress under New York law. The case before us on appeal involves a pattern of extreme racial harassment in the workplace.
The plaintiff, a longtime steelworker at a plant in Lackawanna, New York, endured an extraordinary and steadily intensifying drumbeat of racial insults, intimidation, and degradation over a period of more than three years. The demeaning behavior of the plaintiff's tormentors included insults, slurs, evocations of the Ku Klux Klan, statements comparing black men to apes, death threats, and the placement of a noose dangling from the plaintiff's automobile.1 Supervisors' meager investigations and nearly total lack of action failed to stop the escalating abuse; instead, managers often appeared to condone or even participate in part in the harassment. The experience left the plaintiff psychologically scarred and deflated--injury for which a jury awarded $1.32 million in compensatory damages for the violation of statutes prohibiting a hostile or abusive work environment because of his race and the state tort of intentional infliction of emotional
distress. The jury also assessed $24 million in punitive damages, mostly against the employer and its parent company. The district court subsequently granted a motion for remittitur as to the punitive damages, which remittitur was accepted by the plaintiff, and reduced the punitive award by $19 million, to $5 million. The court also awarded the plaintiff substantial attorney's fees and costs.
The defendants appeal from this judgment and award. They do not seriously dispute the gravity of the underlying conduct, but they raise several procedural and substantive objections to the district court's findings on liability and to its damages award. We reject most of these challenges, finding no error in the district court's judgment concerning liability on the common-law and statutory claims or compensatory damages. We do, however, conclude that the punitive damages award, even after the remittitur in the district court, is excessive in light of the principles set forth in the prior case law of the Supreme Court and of this Circuit.
We are required to police closely the size of awards rendered in the trial courts within our Circuit. In recent opinions, we have addressed at length the individual and social harms associated with excessive awards of compensatory and punitive damages, many of which are relevant to this case.2 A jury's assessment of damages based on intangibles such as emotional harm or the need for punishment injects an additional element of the immeasurable and subjective into the proceedings, which trial and appellate courts are expected to oversee with care. Excessive punitive damages also implicate a defendant's constitutional due process rights insofar as they impose a substantial punishment without the safeguards, constitutional or otherwise, that attend criminal proceedings. Pursuant to these concerns, we scrutinize awards for fairness, consistency, proportionality, and, in the case of punitive damages, constitutionality.
After completing that review on the facts in the record before us, we conclude, first, that the jury's award for compensatory damages was permissible in light of the nature of the plaintiff's claims. Second, we conclude that the punitive damages were excessive. We will remand to the district court for imposition of a remittitur, requiring a new trial on the issue unless the plaintiff accepts an award to be calculated by the district court. The resulting damages, which will remain substantial, will be appropriate and sufficient to remedy the plaintiff's injury and to impose civil punishment on the defendants for their misbehavior.
Elijah Turley was hired at the Buffalo-area Lackawanna Steel Plant in 1995, and remained in this job despite intense racial harassment until his employment was terminated when the plant closed its doors in 2009. During the period relevant to this litigation, the Lackawanna plant changed hands several times in a series of mergers and acquisitions that followed the 2003 liquidation of Bethlehem Steel, its longtime owner. For purposes of this appeal, it is sufficient to note that the plant was owned successively by three Delaware-based corporations (referred to here as " the employer" or " Lackawanna" ) whose names reflected those of three successive corporate parents (hereinafter " the parent company" ;
the last of which hereinafter " ArcelorMittal USA" ).3
The Pattern of Racial Harassment
From 1997 onward, Turley worked as a process operator in the Lackawanna plant's " pickler" 4 department. Throughout the relevant time-period, he was the only African-American working regularly on his shift. Initially, he regarded the environment as pleasant and congenial, where workers treated each other " like a family." 2 Trial Tr. 199, 201. But things deteriorated rapidly in 2005, after Turley filed a grievance alleging that Thomas Jaworski, the manager in the pickler department, was giving favorable treatment to white employees. From that point onward, Turley testified, life in the pickler " was like hell." 2 Trial Tr. 205.
Throughout the remainder of his employment, Turley's co-workers frequently subjected him to racist epithets, degrading treatment, and, from time to time, outright threats. Co-workers declined to speak to him or interact with him socially on the job, by, for example, joining him for lunch. Jaworski, Turley testified, continually referred to him as " boy." 3 Trial Tr. 4-5. Another witness estimated that thirty percent of the workers in the department referred to Turley as " that [fucking nigger]." 5 2 Trial Tr. 90-91. Unidentified coworkers broadcast monkey sounds over the plant's intercom system, also using the system to threaten Turley anonymously: " We['re] going to fucking kill you, fucking nigger, we're going to kill your fucking Jewish lawyer too." 3 Trial Tr. 81.
Turley's workstation became a stage for repeated intimidation and harassment. Sometime in December 2005, he arrived at work to find a sign hanging from his workstation, printed with the words " dancing gorilla." Joint Stmt. of the Case ¶ 20(a). Days later, the initials " KK" were spray-painted on the wall near his workstation, and the phrases " King Kong" and
" King Kong lives" appeared on the floor plate that Turley crossed to enter his booth. Id. ¶ 20(b). In July 2006, someone spray-painted the initials " KKK" on the wall near Turley's workstation; the initials appeared again in 2007. Id. ¶ 20(f). In late 2006, after Turley had filed two harassment complaints with the New York State Division of Human Rights, a face with tears was drawn on the wall in the pickler department. Id. ¶ 20(g). In 2008, a graffiti drawing of an ape-like man was found in a railroad car that had been parked inside the department.
Although many employees harassed and threatened Turley, a coworker, Frank Pelc, was responsible for some of the more extreme conduct. He addressed Turley as " you fucking black bitch," and " you fucking black piece of shit." 3 Trial Tr. 26. Pelc would make monkey sounds when Turley tried to speak to him. Id. A worker who replaced Turley at his workstation at shift changes testified that, on a daily basis, the door handles and controls that Turley used would be covered with thick, black motor grease...
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