Jottings By An Employer's Lawyer

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

No Backpay For Hostile Environment Alone

Today's decision in Spencer v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (11/22/06)[pdf], makes one of those simple points that it is easy to overlook. Plaintiff made two ADA arguments — failure to accommodate and hostile environment. She did not claim constructive discharge. The jury found against her on the accommodation claim, but for her on hostile environment. It awarded $12,000 for emotional damages and $15,000 for backpay.

Wal-mart successfully argued that back pay is an equitable remedy, only for the court's determination and should not have been submitted to a jury. Since there was no claim of constructive discharge, there should have been no award of backpay. Both the district court and now the 3rd Circuit agreed, throwing out the $15,000 award.

And to make matters worse, although the trial court ultimately decided that plaintiff had been the prevailing party because of her win on the hostile environment issue, it also decided that her requested attorneys fees of just over $150,000 should be reduced by 75%. Given that the trial court had compared her success to what she had claimed to have suffered, over $500,000 in damages, and that she did not benefit in any way other than the $12,000 damage award since she had resigned, the appellate court did not find the trial court's reduction an abuse of discretion.

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