In what is believed to be the largest jury award to a single plaintiff in United States history for workplace harassment, a federal jury in Sacramento on February 29, 2012 awarded a whopping $168 million to an employee who allegedly complained more than 18 times during her two-year tenure that she was being harassed at work. Plaintiff Ani Chopourian worked as a physician’s assistant on the cardiovascular surgical team at Mercy General Hospital, a unit of Catholic Healthcare West (now Dignity Health). She alleged that she was subjected to a barrage of harassing behavior by the surgeons she worked with, including being stabbed with a needle and being called “stupid chick.” She claimed that one doctor greeted her each morning by saying “I’m horny” and slapping her on the butt. Another doctor allegedly made disparaging comments about her Armenian ethnicity, asking her if she was a member of Al Qaeda. Chopourian was fired after complaining to hospital management about patient care issues and the harassment. The hospital defended itself by claiming that Chopourian was terminated for professional misconduct.
In what must have sent shivers through the spines of the attorneys representing the hospital, shortly before rendering its verdict the jury sent a note to District Court Judge Kimberly J. Mueller asking for a calculator. (Not a good sign.) One hour later the jury returned its verdict, awarding Chopourian $42.7 million in lost wages and emotional distress and $125 million in punitive damages.
Not surprisingly, the hospital has said it will appeal the verdict.
Regardless of whether the jury’s massive award ultimately stands, this case is a shining example that employers must respond appropriately when faced with employee complaints of harassment. Such complaints cannot be ignored; they must be fully investigated by someone experienced in workplace harassment issues. And if a complaint is determined to have merit, the alleged harasser must be dealt with in a manner that ends the harassing conduct, even if that means terminating your star cardiac surgeon or some other employee that was previously deemed indispensible. Failing to adequately respond to a harassment complaint can (and usually will) end badly for the employer.