In Coffee v. U.S. Department of Defense, EEOC Appeal No. 0720090012 (March 13, 2009), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reversed the agency's final order and upheld an administrative judge's award of $75,000 in nonpecuniary damages for emotional distress suffered because of race-based harassment by a co-worker.
The complainant was a material expeditor at the agency's Red River Army Depot in Texarkana, Texas. The administrative judge found that the agency engaged in race discrimination against the complainant by its failure to respond to her allegations of co-worker harassment during a three-month temporary duty assignment at Fort Knox, Ky. and upon her return to her permanent duty station. Among other things, the administrative judge awarded the complainant $75,000 in emotional distress damages. In its final order and on appeal, the agency only contested the amount of the award as excessive.
The Commission explained that for an award of nonpecuniary damages, a complainant must submit evidence demonstrating that the agency's discriminatory conduct was the proximate cause of her emotional distress. The Commission found substantial evidence to support the administrative judge's finding that the complainant had established a nexus between the harm suffered and the discriminatory actions proven based upon statements by the complainant, complainant's daughter, friends, and hair dressers. Moreover, the Commission held that the complainant's evidence was sufficient for supporting an award of $75,000 in emotional distress damages despite the existence of "very little medical documentation to establish that complainant suffered significant emotional harm."
The Commission also wrote that the amount of any emotional distress damages must be tailored to address the actual harm suffered. The Commission found the agency's conduct to be egregious because it took no corrective action once notified of the complainant's allegations of a hostile work environment, as required by EEOC regulations. The Commission found the amount of $75,000 to be appropriate in light of the agency's inaction, he complainant's separation from her family while on temporary assignment, and the complainant having lived in a hotel room next to the harassing co-worker.
The decision re-emphasizes the principle that justification for substantial awards of emotional distress damages is not limited to an abundance of medical documentation. Rather, sometimes the most important evidence can simply be the statements of others, particularly the complainant. The power of a complainant's testimony cannot be underestimated.
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