Damages for Sexual Harassment

A recent EEOC decision helps to better define the amount of compensatory damages appropriate when an employee who has been victimized by discrimination or harassment suffers certain kinds of harm as a result. Gray v. Department of the Interior, EEOC Appeal No. 0120072136 (July 24, 2009).

Celeste Gray brought an EEO complaint against the Department of the Interior, alleging that her supervisor had subjected her to sexual harassment in her workplace. The agency found that Gray had indeed experienced sexual harassment when her supervisor rubbed her shoulder, put a bottle of oil on her desk for her hair, had her pick up trash in front of his desk, and made several inappropriate comments to her and to other female employees. The agency's initial decision awarded Gray $10,000 in compensatory damages. The agency also awarded a small amount of pecuniary damages, finding that because Gray had prevailed on only one of the four claims she brought against the agency, her award for pecuniary damages should be reduced to one-quarter of what she requested.

Gray appealed the agency decision to the EEOC on the grounds that the agency's award of $10,000 did not accurately reflect the level of harm she suffered as a result of the harassment. Gray produced documentation and affidavits in support of her claims for compensatory damages. The EEOC reviewed the agency's decision and found that Gray had experienced more than three years of severe physical pain and suffering. The effects of the harassment included headaches, an inability to trust supervisors, frequent nightmares and excessive drinking, introversion, alienation from family members, depression, and loss of friendship, among other conditions.

The Commission found that the agency's award of $10,000 in compensatory damages was inadequate, but that the $185,000 Gray requested would overcompensate for her suffering. The Commission set an award of $100,000 and did not reduce her award because of failure to prevail on the original claims she had raised against the agency. Rather, it found that her pecuniary losses related directly to her supervisor's sexual harassment (the claim on which she did prevail), and therefore awarded $49,459.75 in pecuniary damages to cover Ms. Gray's expenditures on psychiatric and medical expenses, etc.

This case provides useful guidance to employees seeking compensatory damages in discrimination or harassment cases against federal agencies. Where the harm an employee suffers because of discrimination or harassment closely resembles the effects Gray suffered, this decision will provide support for a compensatory damages claim of similar size. In addition, where an employee brings several different claims against an agency but does not ultimately prevail on all, she may still fully recover for her pecuniary losses if she can show that the harm she suffered directly relates to those winning claims.