Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Davis v. Packer Engineering, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

April 12, 2018

DANYA DAVIS, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
PACKER ENGINEERING, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Andrea R. Wood, United States District Judge

         This case went to trial before a jury on claims by Plaintiffs Danya Davis and Bernessa Wilson that Defendant Packer Engineering, Inc. (“Packer”) subjected them to a hostile work environment and retaliated against them for complaining, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., as well as a retaliation claim by Plaintiff Shannon Webb against Packer under the same statute. The jury found in favor of Packer on all three Plaintiffs' retaliation claims but in favor of Davis and Wilson on their hostile work environment claims. Now before the Court are three post-trial motions by Packer: motions for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b) as to each of Davis and Wilson (Dkt. Nos. 236, 238) and a motion for a new trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59 (Dkt. No. 240). For the reasons discussed below, the motions are denied.

         BACKGROUND

         Wilson and Davis both claimed that, while working at Packer, their co-workers subjected them to a hostile work environment because of their sex. At trial, Wilson's claim was supported primarily by evidence that she heard and saw a male co-worker watching pornography and masturbating in his glass-walled office during the work day, over the course of many months and often several times a day. Meanwhile, in support of her claim, Davis presented evidence at trial regarding a range of conduct, including male co-workers watching pornography in their offices, as well as co-workers' frequent use of the words “bitch” and “cunt” to refer to Davis and other female Packer employees; a male co-worker referring to Davis as a “sexually dangerous woman” and a “sexual predator” to other staff members; that same co-worker suggesting Davis's place was to be at home, barefoot and pregnant; and similar regular and frequent comments by male Packer employees. Wilson and Davis both also presented evidence that they reported the conduct to Packer executives multiple times, that Packer did nothing to stop the conduct, and that instead Davis and Wilson were wrongfully terminated in retaliation for reporting the unlawful hostile work environment. Webb, the lone male plaintiff, also claimed that Packer wrongfully terminated him in retaliation for reporting the unlawful hostile work environment that his female coworkers were facing.

         After an eleven-day trial during which it heard from 25 witnesses and considered 93 exhibits, the jury returned a defense verdict for Packer on all three retaliation claims but found in favor of Wilson and Davis on their hostile work environment claims. The jury awarded Davis $150, 000 in compensatory damages and $3, 000, 000 in punitive damages, and awarded Wilson $300, 000 in compensatory damages and $3, 000, 000 in punitive damages. On Packer's motion, the Court subsequently reduced the jury verdicts to $50, 000 in compensatory damages and $0 in punitive damages for each prevailing Plaintiff pursuant to Title VII's damages cap for employers with more than 14 but fewer than 101 employees. Packer now asks this Court to enter judgment in its favor notwithstanding the jury's verdicts against it or, alternatively, to order a new trial.

         DISCUSSION

         I. Packer's Motions for Judgment as a Matter of Law

         A court may grant judgment as a matter of law against a party who has been fully heard at trial if “a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the [nonmoving] party.” Fed R. Civ. P. 50(a)(1); see Thomas v. Cook County Sheriff's Dep't, 604 F.3d 293, 300-01 (7th Cir. 2009). Put another way, the jury's verdict must stand unless no rational jury could have returned such a verdict. Id. at 301. In deciding a Rule 50 motion, a court “do[es] not weigh evidence or assess the credibility of witnesses. Instead, [it] draw[s] all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party.” Id. (citations omitted).

         As the jury was instructed, to succeed on their sexual harassment hostile work environment claims, Davis and Wilson each had to establish seven elements: (1) she was subjected to sexual harassment; (2) the conduct was unwelcome; (3) the conduct occurred because she was female; (4) the conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive that a reasonable person in her position would find her work environment to be hostile or abusive; (5) at the time the conduct occurred, she believed that the conduct made her work environment hostile or abusive; (6) Packer knew or should have known about the conduct; and (7) Packer did not take reasonable steps to correct the situation and prevent harassment from recurring. (Jury Instructions, Dkt. No. 197; see Seventh Circuit Pattern Instruction 3.04 (citing Kriescher v. Fox Hills Golf Resort and Conf. Ctr. FHR, Inc., 384 F.3d 912, 915 (7th Cir. 2004); Rizzo v. Sheahan, 266 F.3d 705, 711-12 (7th Cir. 2001); Hostetler v. Quality Dining, Inc., 218 F.3d 798, 806-07 (7th Cir. 2000); Pryor v. Seyfarth, Shaw, Fairweather & Geraldson, 212 F.3d 976 (7th Cir. 2000)).)

         A. Plaintiff Davis

         Packer contends that Davis failed to present sufficient evidence to support her hostile work environment claim for several reasons. First, Packer argues that the evidence of alleged harassment against Davis within the statutory time period[1] was not sufficiently severe or pervasive such that a reasonable person in her position would find her work environment to be hostile. Packer also argues that the evidence showed that the subjective requirement-that is, that Davis believed that the challenged conduct made her work environment hostile-was not met because Davis's own conduct was inconsistent with feeling sexually harassed. For example, Packer presented evidence that it contends established that Davis engaged in inappropriate behavior herself, including having an extra-marital affair with another Packer employee and dressing provocatively at work. Packer further contends that Davis failed to prove that the alleged conduct by Packer employees was directed at her because of her sex, as much of the conduct about which she complained was not directed specifically to her and both women and men at Packer were subjected to the same work environment. Packer also claims that Davis failed to prove that Packer knew or should have known about the harassing conduct and failed to take reasonable steps to prevent it because the evidence showed that, upon receipt of Davis's EEOC charge, Packer retained outside counsel and required the employee behind many of Davis's complaints, Packer Chief Technical Officer Ed Caulfield, to go to harassment training. Finally, Packer argues that the jury's award of compensatory damages was improper because Davis only sought such damages for emotional distress and she failed to put forth any evidence to support her claim.

         The Court addresses each argument in turn. First, it was not unreasonable for the jury to find that the totality of the evidence established that Davis worked in an objectively hostile work environment. See, e.g., Boss v. Castro, 816 F.3d 910, 920 (7th Cir. 2016) (indicating that “[d]eciding whether a work environment is hostile” requires a “totality of the circumstances approach, ” which includes “consideration of factors like the frequency of improper conduct, its severity, whether its physically threatening or humiliating . . . and whether it unreasonably interferes with the employee's work performance”). For example, Davis testified that, within the statutory period, she heard Caulfield and another co-worker, Scott Erdman, say “cunt” a “fair amount” throughout her tenure (R. 1018-20); that Caulfield used the terms “bitch” and “stupid bitch” to refer to women (R. 1022); that Caulfield told her she should be at home, barefoot and pregnant (R. 1054); that Caulfield called her an “overpaid bitch” (R. 1055); that Caulfield suggested to her that Packer should cut salaries in half for all administrative assistants, who were all female, because most of them had men to support them (R. 1013, 1058-59); and that she heard pornography sounds coming from the offices of multiple male colleagues, including Tage Tarlson, Aaron Jones, and John McKinney. (R. 1044.)

         In addition, the jury was entitled to consider evidence of conduct outside the statutory period as well as conduct directed at others in determining whether a hostile work environment existed. See, e.g., National R.R. Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, 536 U.S. 101, 117 (2002) (“It does not matter . . . that some of the component acts of the hostile work environment fall outside the statutory time period. Provided that an act contributing to the claim occurs within the filing period, the entire time period of the hostile environment may be considered by a court for purposes of determining liability.”); Gleason v. Mesirow Fin., Inc., 118 F.3d 1134, 1144 (7th Cir. 1997) (evidence of harassment directed at employees other than the plaintiff is relevant in demonstrating the existence of a hostile work environment). Outside the statutory period, Davis testified that, among other incidents, Erdman shared nude pictures of a young woman at the firm with his colleagues (R. 1042); Erdman commented that an administrative assistant's “pussy was too stretched” (R. 1043); Jones occasionally placed a rubber chicken on his office door handle and when asked why would explain that sometimes he had to “choke the chicken” and would simulate humping his office door (R. 1043); Caulfield called Davis a “sexually dangerous woman” and a “sexual predator” to his staff members (R. 1049); Caulfield suggested that colleague Kim Strathman was going to “grudge fuck” her ex-husband (R. 1024, 1040); Caulfield discussed “camel toe” with other employees and sought out pictures of women with camel toe (R. 1066-67); Caulfield sent pornographic material to female colleagues while they were working (R. 1068); and Jones responded to the sexual harassment training that Davis implemented by commenting that “we don't report [sexual harassment]. We grade it.” (R. 1051.)

         There was also sufficient evidence for the jury to find that Davis viewed her work environment as hostile. For example, Davis reported the majority of the incidents to personnel on the executive committee and no action was taken. (R. 1042, 1043, 1044, 1047-48, 1055, 1066-67, 1069.) Davis testified that she was “disgusted, ” “saddened, ” and “angry” that she had to remind Packer leadership that they could not target female leadership for layoffs. (R. 1015.) She testified that she believes “cunt” is the most offensive word in the English language, and that hearing the word regularly while at work made her feel physically “sick;” “dirty, degraded, and worthless;” and “very distracted” and “less inspired” to work. (R. 1016, 1018, 1020.) When Caulfield told her that her “only place was to be home barefoot and pregnant, ” it made her feel “horrible” and “hurt.” (R. 1054.) Finally, she was “upset” when she organized a sexual harassment training for Packer employees that was not fully attended or taken seriously. (R. 1072.)

         The jury was also entitled to find that the conduct was directed at Davis because she was female. Davis testified about several incidents that the jury could have found were directed specifically at Davis because of her sex, for example, testimony that Caulfield told her she should be at home, barefoot and pregnant (R. 1054), and that he called her “an overpaid bitch, ” a “sexually dangerous woman, ” and a “sexual predator” to his staff members. (R. 1049, 1055.) See, e.g., Passananti v. Cook Cty., 689 F.3d 655, 659 (7th Cir. 2012) (“The jury could reasonably treat the frequent and hostile use of the word ‘bitch' to be a gender-based epithet that contributed to a sexually hostile work environment.”). Moreover, the fact that male and female employees were equally subjected to the environment at Packer-including the regular use of “cunt” and “bitch, ” sounds of pornography emanating from male employees' offices, and sexualized conversation- does not preclude a finding that the conduct occurred because the plaintiff was female. A work environment equally applicable to male and female employees but particularly degrading to women may meet the “based on sex” requirement of the hostile work environment framework, even where the conduct is not directed at a particular female plaintiff because “[s]uch workplace disparagement of women . . . stands as a serious impediment to any woman's efforts to deal professionally with her male colleagues.” Petrosino v. Bell Atl., 385 F.3d 210, 223 (2d Cir. 2004) (holding the “based on sex” requirement was met where employees were subjected to the same work environment regardless of gender because “the depiction of women in the offensive jokes and graphics . . . was uniformly sexually demeaning and communicated the message that women as a group were available for sexual exploitation by men”); see also Reeves v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc., 594 F.3d 798, 811 (11th Cir. 2010) (explaining that “words or conduct with sexual content that disparately expose members of one sex to disadvantageous terms or conditions of employment also may support a claim under Title VII” and that “[e]vidence that co-workers aimed their insults at a protected group may give rise to the inference of an intent to discriminate on the basis of sex, even when those insults are not directed at the individual employee”); Ocheltree v. Scollon Prods., Inc., 335 F.3d 325, 332 (4th Cir. 2003) (holding that “[a] reasonable jury could find that much of the sex-laden and sexist talk and conduct in the [work environment] was aimed at [plaintiff] because of her sex” even though the conduct was not directed at plaintiff and was equally viewable by male employees because the conduct “was particularly offensive to women”); Harris v. Mayor and City Council, 429 Fed.Appx. 195, 198, 201 (4th Cir. 2010) (display of “provocative pictures” of women throughout the work environment “sexualized [plaintiff's] work place and satisfied the ‘because of' gender requirement”).

         As to Packer's argument that the evidence did not establish that Packer was negligent, the jury heard evidence that Davis routinely reported conduct to Packer's executive leadership- including Executive Vice President of Finance Charlotte Sartain, Chief Executive Officer Mike Koehler, and Chairman of the Board Kenneth Packer-and nothing was done. (R. 1021-22, 1037, 1041-42). Packer's argument that it took reasonable steps in response to the complaints focuses only on the company's response once it received Davis's EEOC complaint. But evidence at trial suggested that Packer was aware of the alleged conduct before the EEOC complaint and did nothing, and the jury was entitled to credit that evidence. See, e.g., May v. Chrysler Grp., LLC, 716 F.3d 963, 972 (7th Cir. 2013) (“[T]he jury was presented with more than enough evidence to conclude that [defendant ] had not done enough. [Defendant], of course, characterizes its efforts differently . . . . But the jury certainly did not have to believe that [defendant's] efforts . . . were ‘adequate' or, even if it thought [the] efforts were adequate, that they started ‘promptly' enough for [defendant] to avoid liability.”).

         Finally, the record supports the jury's award of compensatory damages for emotional distress.[2] A court “must accord substantial deference to a jury's determination of compensatory damages.” Carter v. Chicago Transit Auth., No. 99 C 7738, 2001 WL 1035712, *8 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 7, 2001) (citing Ramsey v. American Air Filter Col, Inc., 772 F.2d 1303, 1313 (7th Cir. 1985)). A court may find that there is not enough evidence to support a jury's damages award “[o]nly if [it is] convinced, after looking at all of the evidence in the record, that there was not enough to support the jury's verdict.” Smart Marketing Grp., Inc. v. Publications Int'l Ltd., 624 F.3d 824, 829 (7th Cir. 2010). Further, in analyzing an award for compensatory damages, “it is important to bear in mind that our legal system confers on juries the function of placing a value on pain and suffering, both emotional and physical. Judges do not inherently possess more wisdom than jurors in performing this function . . . .” Deloughery v. City of Chicago, No. 02 C 2722, 2004 WL 1125897, at *3 (N.D. Ill. May 20, 2004). In reviewing a compensatory damages award, a court considers three factors: “whether the award is ‘monstrously excessive'; whether there is no rational connection between the award and the evidence, indicating that it is merely a product of the jury's fevered imaginings or personal vendettas; and whether the award is roughly comparable to awards made in similar cases.” U.S. E.E.O.C. v. AIC Sec. Investigations, Ltd., 55 F.3d 1276, 1285 (7th Cir. 1995). The Supreme Court has indicated that a compensable injury in a hostile work environment claim need not rise to the level of affecting the psychological well-being of the victim, but there must be some proof of mental distress. Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc., 510 U.S. 17 (1993).

         Regarding the conduct that occurred within the statutory time period, Davis testified that she was “disgusted, ” “saddened, ” and “angry” that she had to remind Packer leadership that they could not target female leadership for layoffs. (R. 1015.) She testified that she believes “cunt” is the most offensive word in the English language, and that hearing it regularly at work made her feel physically “sick;” “dirty, degraded, and worthless;” and “very distracted” and “less inspired” to work. (R. 1016. 1018, 1020.) When Caulfield told her that her “only place was to be home barefoot and pregnant, ” it made her feel “horrible” and “hurt” both because she was a woman and because Caulfield was aware that she had to undergo a procedure that left her unable to have children. (R. 1054.) She further testified that she was “upset” when she organized a sexual harassment training that was not fully attended and that was not taken seriously. (R. 1072.). Given the evidentiary record, there is a rational connection between the award and the evidence. Further, given that Davis's compensatory damages were already reduced post-trial from $150, 000 to $50, 000 pursuant to Title VII's damages cap, the Court declines to find that the reduced award was monstrously excessive such that it should be further reduced. Finally, the award is roughly comparable to awards made in similar cases. See, e.g., David v. Caterpillar, Inc., 324 F.3d 851, 364 (7th Cir. 2003) (in Title VII case, finding $50, 000 in compensatory damages appropriate for depression, anxiety, and stress); Fulmore v. M&M Transp. Servs., Inc., No. 11-cv-00389-TSP, 2014 WL 1691340, at *14-15 (S.D. Ind. Apr. 29, 2014) (in a Title VII case, finding $50, 000 in compensatory damages appropriate for emotional injury where the plaintiff testified to feeling uncomfortable, angry, embarrassed, and sad).

         B. Plaintiff Wilson

         Packer also raises several arguments why Wilson failed to present sufficient evidence to support her hostile work environment claim. First, Packer contends that the evidence established that a reasonable person in Wilson's position would not have found the work environment to be hostile because Wilson did not know for sure that Packer employee John McKinney was watching pornography and masturbating in his office. Similarly, Packer claims that the evidence showed that Wilson did not believe that the conduct made her work environment hostile because she was able to perform her job with high reviews and enjoyed working at Packer. Next, Packer argues that Wilson failed to prove that the conduct was directed at her because of her sex because women and men at Packer were subjected to the same environment. Packer also contends that the evidence failed to establish that Packer knew or should have known about the conduct and failed to take reasonable steps because when Packer received Wilson's EEOC charge, it retained outside counsel and conducted an investigation, took action to move McKinney's office, issued him a warning letter, required him to attend counseling, and monitored his activities. Finally, Packer argues that the jury's compensatory damages award for Wilson's emotional distress was improper because the evidence showed that Wilson was laughing in the videos that she recorded of McKinney's conduct and that she was treated for emotional issues prior to ever viewing McKinney in his office.

         Again, the Court addresses each argument in turn. First, the evidence supports the jury's finding that a reasonable person in Wilson's position would have found her work environment to be hostile. While Packer argues that the evidence showed that McKinney was not actually watching pornography or masturbating, the jury was entitled to weigh the conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, and find that Wilson's claim was supported. For example, Wilson testified that she had “no doubt that he was actually masturbating” and that she saw him masturbating from two to ten times nearly every day. (R. 679, 854.) Moreover, a male employee who had an office near McKinney also testified that he heard McKinney watching pornography, that he was disturbed by it, and that it was happening so much that he could not do his work. (R. 680, 711.) Another male employee also testified that he heard and saw what he thought was McKinney watching pornography and masturbating and he was offended by what he saw. (R. 446, 559.) Additionally, the jury was able to view videos and photographs of what Wilson observed and make a determination for themselves.

         The record also supports the jury's finding that Wilson believed that the conduct made her work environment hostile. For example, she testified that she was offended by what she heard and saw and would sometimes leave her desk to go to the filing room to get away from it. (R. 678-79.) She also testified that she reported the issue to Packer leadership, confronted McKinney and asked him to stop, and ultimately filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. (R. 705-07, 710-11, 722.)

         In addition, as discussed with respect to Davis, the jury was entitled to find that the alleged conduct occurred because Wilson was female. That male and female employees were equally subject to viewing McKinney's conduct and hearing the sounds of pornography emanating from his office does not preclude the jury from making such a finding. This is particularly so given that the jury heard evidence that the audio from the pornography-which infiltrated Wilson's work space-regularly included gender-based language such as “who's your bitch?” (R. 676, 679, 708, 682.) See Passananti, 689 F.3d at 664 (“The jury could reasonably treat the frequent and hostile use of the word ‘bitch' to be a gender-based epithet that contributed to a sexually hostile work environment.”) Put another away, the jury was entitled to find that a male co-worker masturbating to pornography that included anti-female language was particularly degrading to women and therefore met the “based on sex” requirement of the hostile work environment framework; “[s]uch workplace disparagement of women . . . stands as a serious impediment to any woman's efforts to deal professionally with her male colleagues.” Petrosino, 385 F.3d at 223; Reeves, 594 F.3d at 811; Ocheltree, 335 F.3d at 332; Harris, 429 Fed.Appx. at 198, 201.

         The record also supports the jury's finding that Packer knew or should have known about the conduct and yet did not take reasonable steps to correct the situation or prevent its recurrence. While Packer's argument that it took reasonable steps focuses on its conduct after it received Wilson's EEOC complaint, the record supports a finding that Wilson and others reported the pornography issues to executives at Packer starting over six months before the EEOC complaint and Packer did not take any steps to address the situation. (R. 377, 389, 390-91, 394-95, 406, 710-11, 1045-6.). See, e.g., May, 716 F.3d at 972 (“[T]he jury was presented with more than enough evidence to conclude that [defendant ] had not done enough. [Defendant], of course, characterizes its efforts differently . . . . But the jury certainly did not have to believe that [defendant's] efforts . . . were ‘adequate' or, even if it thought [the] efforts were adequate, that they started ‘promptly' enough for [defendant] to avoid liability.”).

         Finally, the record supports the jury's award of compensatory damages for emotional distress. Wilson testified that when she first heard the pornography and saw McKinney masturbating, her colleague had to take her into a nearby office and make sure she was okay and tell her to calm down. (R. 677.) The word “bitch” coming from the pornography offended her. (R. 678.) Sometimes she would leave hear desk and go into the filing room to get away from what she was hearing and seeing. (R. 679.) When she went to her direct supervisor, who was also on Packer's executive committee, to discuss what was happening and ask him to take action, she was “hurt” and “angry” when he did nothing. (R. 681, 705.) Wilson further testified that she “had some anxiety” leading up to approaching McKinney directly about his conduct and asking him to stop, and she was worried about losing her job or “something go[ing] wrong. (R. 705.) After she talked to him, she was “embarrassed” and avoided her desk because she “didn't want him to look at me. I didn't want him slamming things. I didn't know if he was going to do a temper-I didn't know.” (R. 707, 708.) She also testified that she thought it was “very disgusting to know somebody intimately, when you've never been with them intimately.” (R. 708.) Wilson further testified that after she reported to the EEOC and had to go back to work she had anxiety, felt nervous, and was not sleeping. (R. 725.) She again worried about McKinney's “temper tantrums . . . because if I'm sitting in that space and it gets out of control, what about that?” (R. 725.) She had to tell her daughter and mother what happened because she supported both of them and worried about losing her job, and this made her feel “dirty, [] ashamed . . . I had to go to this man, [had] to tell my daughter this stuff, [had ] to tell my mom this stuff.” (R. 726-27.) She further testified that she spoke to her therapist about her distress, that she was having panic attacks at night, and that the therapist gave her sleeping pills. (R. 727-28.) Given the evidentiary record, there is a rational connection between the award and the evidence. The jury was entitled to find that Wilson's emotional issues stemmed from her experience at Packer rather than other factors like financial and relationship issues. Further, given that Wilson's compensatory damages have already been reduced post-trial from $300, 000 to $50, 000 pursuant to Title VII's damages cap, the Court declines to find that the reduced award was monstrously excessive such that it should be further reduced. Finally, as discussed in connection with the compensatory damages award to Davis, the award to Wilson is roughly comparable to awards made in similar cases.

         In sum, because the Court finds that the jury had a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for both Davis and Wilson on their hostile work environment claims, Packer's motions for judgment as a matter of law are denied.

         II. Motion for a New Trial

         In the alternative to judgment as a matter of law, Packer also moves for a new trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e). A federal court should grant a new trial under Rule 59(e) only “if the verdict is against the clear weight of the evidence, the damages are excessive or the trial was unfair to the moving party.” Miskis v. Howard, 106 F.3d 754, 757 (7th Cir. 1997). Packer seeks a new trial on ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.