Court Reconsiders Limits on Punitive Damages

A federal appeals court will reconsider whether a $300,000 punitive damage award is constitutionally excessive when the jury awarded little or no compensatory damages in an Arizona sexual harassment case.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Friday ordered a rehearing by a full 11-judge en banc panel in the case of a woman who sued and won a jury verdict in a sexual harassment case against ASARCO copper mining company in Sahuarita, Arizona.

In the original October three-judge order, the panel vacated the $300,000 punitive damage award for Angela Aguilar when a jury awards none or only nominal compensatory damages.

The panel held the highest punitive award supportable under due process was $125,000 because it was the highest award that maintained the required “reasonable relationship” between compensatory and punitive damages.

The panel split 2-1, with visiting Judge James Singleton of Alaska providing the deciding vote.  The dissent came from Judge Andrew Hurwitz, a recent Obama appointee and former Arizona state Supreme Court justice.  The majority opinion was by Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain, a conservative Reagan appointee.

Aguilar was a car loader at the ASARCO copper mine in 2006 when a supervisor told her at the outset he was romantically interested in her.  He asked her out daily and refused to train or help her when she rejected him. She complained that he would press up against her when she asked for help and she was afraid she would be raped, according to the court.  ASARCO countered that Aguilar told human resources that her supervisor had not touched her, O’Scannlain’s opinion states.

When Aguilar moved to a new position but again a supervisor, Julio esquivel, reportedly warned “your ass is mine,” yelled and threatened her with firing.  The company responded with testimony during the trial to show that Esquivel was “not motivated by her sex but instead by his general boorishness,” according to O’Scannlain.

She took a leave in September 2006 for two months and when she returned worked on a different crew but only lasted for days before quitting.

She sued the company alleging sexual harassment, retaliation and saying she was effectively fired.

A jury found no compensatory damages for the sexual harassment claim but did award $869,000 in punitive damages.  The trial judge later reduced it to $300,000, as the maximum limit under Title VII for an employer of ASARCO’s size.

The appeals court panel said the punitive damages were constitutionally excessive.

A majority of the 27-judge court voted Friday to reconsider that decision and put the case before an 11-judge panel.

Case: State of Arizona (Aguilar) v. ASARCO, No. 11-17484



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