In DCHRA case, Court affirms $1 compensatory damages and $42,677.50 in punitive damages

In Howard University v. Wilkins, Nos. 09-CV-318, 09-CV-319, and 09-CV-544 (D.C. June 30, 2011), the Court affirmed the plaintiff's verdict, in a District of Columbia Human Rights Act action for retaliation, of $1.00 in compensatory damages, and $42,677.50 in punitive damages. The plaintiff had alleged that Howard University had retaliated against her by terminating her employment because of her prior sexual harassment claim.

On appeal, Howard argued, among other things, that the size of the punitive damages award was constitutionally excessive, and that the trial court should have granted its motion for remittitur. The Court reviewed this issue under a de novo standard of review, yet still affirmed.

The jury had answered "yes" to a special interrogatory on the jury verdict form, which had asked, "Do you find by clear and convincing evidence that [Howard's] actions in terminating Ms. Wilkins were undertaken recklessly, maliciously, wantonly, and/or in reckless disregard to Ms. Wilkins' rights under the [DCHRA]?"

The D.C. Court of Appeals reasoned in part that although the Supreme Court has stated that few awards exceeding a single-digit ratio between punitive and compensatory damages will satisfy due process, the Supreme Court has repeatedly declined to impose a bright-line ratio which a puntive damages award cannot exceed. The D.C. Court of Appeals also cited to courts in other jurisdictions which followed the principle that greater ratios may comport with due process when reprehensible conduct results in only a small amount of economic damages.

The Court also considered that a punitive damages award must remain of sufficient size to achieve the twin purposes of punishment and deterrence. The Court observed that had the jury awarded $42,677.50 in compensatory damages, that amount would have seemed entirely reasonable. The Court also noted that if the jury's punitive damages award was reduced to an amount not significantly larger than nine times the actual damages, that would mean that Howard would receive a sanction of little more than ten dollars.

Therefore, the Court concluded that there is no need to disturb the jury's punitive damages award.

The Court also upheld the trial court's award of summary judgment to Howard based on qualified privilege. Interestingly, the plaintiff argued that Howard waived the affirmative defense of qualified privilege by failing to raise it in its answer. The Court of Appeals rejected that contention, pointing to a statement in Howard's motion for summary judgment which it deemed sufficient to raise the affirmative defense of privilege under Rule 8(c). On this point, Howard certainly dodged a bullet, because many courts in this region would probably find waiver of the affirmative defense under these circumstances.

Lastly, the Court found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in determining that reinstatement of the plaintiff was inappropriate in this case. The trial court found that reinstatement was inappropriate because the plaintiff was on long-term disability at the time Howard retaliated against her, and that lingering animosity between plaintiff and Howard militated against ordering reinstatement.