Federal Legal Corner: Damages Award for Additional Harm

The EEOC upheld, with slight modification, an administrative judge’s decision awarding a complainant $100,000 in non-pecuniary (compensatory) damages in the case Complainant v. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Appeal No. 0720130010 (October 31, 2013). The decision reaffirmed long-standing EEO case law holding that where a complainant has preexisting physical and/or mental ailments, an agency is still liable for additional harm or aggravation caused by discrimination.

The AJ issued a decision in the complainant’s favor after hearing, finding that the agency had discriminated against her and subjected her to a hostile work environment. The AJ awarded her $100,000 in compensatory damages based on testimony that she became stressed, that she suffered anxiety and depression, that her reputation was tarnished, that her life and social relationships had been disrupted, and that she no longer felt comfortable in the work environment.

The EEOC rejected the agency’s argument on appeal that the complainant should have been awarded only $20,000 in pecuniary damages. The agency argued that the duration of harm was shorter than the complainant alleged, and that the award should also have been reduced because she had coronary heart disease and depression well before the incidents at issue. Although the EEOC acknowledged that an agency is typically liable only for the increased harm caused by discrimination, the Commission refused to apply the exception here, noting that the record showed that “the discrimination significantly worsened Complainant’s symptoms,” and the agency could only have reduced damages if it proved the symptoms would have worsened even absent the discrimination.

The EEOC found the decision consistent with cases awarding “similar amounts for emotional harm such as anxiety, depression, stress, loss of self-esteem, sleep problems, humiliation, harm to professional reputation, and high blood pressure.”The Commission also awarded the complainant restored leave, pecuniary damages, and attorney’s fees and costs of more than $81,000, as well as ordering EEO training for the responsible management officials and urging the agency to consider taking appropriate disciplinary action against them.

The five-year time lapse between the date the complainant filed her EEO complaint and the date of this decision is another reminder that employees who pursue discrimination claims should be prepared for a lengthy administrative process.

* This information is provided by the attorneys at Passman& Kaplan, P.C., a law firm dedicated to the representation of federal employees worldwide. For more information on Passman& Kaplan, P.C., go to http://www.passmanandkaplan.com.

The attorneys at Passman& Kaplan, P.C, are the authors of The Federal Employees Legal Survival Guide, Second Edition, a comprehensive overview of federal employees’ legal rights. To order your copy, go to http://www.passmanandkaplan.com/CM/Custom/Federal-Employees-Survival-Guide.asp. This book originally sold for $49.95 plus s&h, but is now available for $29.95 plus s&h.