Supreme Court takes case of penalty limit for harassment on job

Federal law puts $300,000 ceiling on damages awards

January 09, 2001|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court stepped in yesterday to settle a dispute over the right of workers who suffer workplace discrimination to collect damages beyond a $300,000 ceiling set by federal law.

The justices said they will hear an appeal by a Memphis woman, Sharon B. Pollard, a victim of nearly eight years of sexual harassment who claims that she should be awarded up to $500,000 beyond the federal limit.

At issue is the authority of federal courts to award "front pay" as a remedy for on-the-job discrimination based on race, sex, disability, religion or national origin under Title VII of federal civil rights law.

Front pay is an award of damages to a worker who has left a job because of discrimination. It reflects pay the worker would have earned in the future if he or she had stayed on the job or been reinstated. It is different from "back pay," which is a recovery for past pay lost as a result of the discrimination.

Most courts that have ruled on the front pay issue have treated it as a separate damage award, beyond an award to directly compensate the victim of workplace bias. Front pay, they have held, is not subject to the $300,000 ceiling that Congress imposed in 1991 on compensatory damages.

In Pollard's case, however, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled in May that the $300,000 limit applies to the total amount awarded, including front pay. Once a federal judge had awarded Pollard that sum for compensation, the appeals court said it could add no more for front pay.

The Supreme Court agreed to resolve the dispute among the lower courts.

Pollard's appeal contends that the ceiling does not apply to front pay and that she should thus receive up to $500,000 beyond the $300,000 limit.

She worked in DuPont Co.'s plant in Memphis, Tenn., in a section that made hydrogen peroxide. From 1987 through the summer of 1995, Pollard contends, she was repeatedly harassed by co-workers who made it clear that they did not want a woman in their ranks. The co-workers protested her leadership of DuPont's program of bringing girls to work on Take Your Daughter to Work Day.

Aside from shutting her out from joint lunch breaks, she said, her co-workers disrupted the machinery she was responsible for operating, created false fire alarms so that she had to deal with nonexistent problems, cut the tires on her bicycle, ran her automobile off the road, called her names and left in her locker a biblical verse about the need for women to remain quiet.

No co-worker was disciplined, Pollard contended, and management investigations were superficial.

After she took a medical leave for psychological harm, her co-workers held a party to celebrate, Pollard said.

DuPont managers asked her to return after her medical leave, despite a doctor's advice, but would not promise to assign her to a different work area and shift. She refused to return under those circumstances and was fired.

Pollard sued for sexual harassment and won $107,364 in back pay and benefits, plus $300,000 - the maximum - in damages to compensate for the bias.

The Supreme Court will hold a hearing on her case in April and is expected to issue a ruling by early summer.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.