Seventh Circuit Affirms $175,000.00 Award for Emotional Distress in Title VII Claim Despite Employee’s Lack of Medical Evidence

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September 22, 2005

On September 7, 2005, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed a district court decision that had awarded $175,000 to a Hispanic woman who claimed she was wrongfully denied a promotion by the City of Chicago. Deloughery v. City of Chicago, No. 02 C 2722 (7th Cir. Sept. 7, 2005). Delores Deloughery had sued her employer, the City of Chicago, after the City failed to promote her to the rank of captain within the Chicago Police Department. Ms. Deloughery claimed that the City s failure to promote her was retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The jury found in favor of Ms. Deloughery on her Title VII claim that included damages in the amount of $250,000 for emotional distress. The district court judge found the award of $250,000 to be excessive and reduced the damages to $175,000. The City appealed.

The City ‘s Argument On Appeal
On appeal, the City requested that the $175,000 award for emotional distress be vacated and that a new trial be held to determine damages. Specifically, the City argued that: i) there was no medical documentation to support Ms. Deloughery’s claims of emotional distress; ii) the jury had relied solely on Ms. Deloughery’s testimony and the testimony of one co-worker in concluding that she had suffered emotional distress; iii) Ms. Deloughery had admitted she never sought professional help, and that she was going through a divorce and having trouble caring for her small children after she was denied the promotion; and iv) an award of $175,000 for emotional distress without medical documentation was not comparable to awards in similar cases.

The Court of Appeals Decision
The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld the award of $175,000. The Court noted that an award for a non-pecuniary loss, such as a loss due to emotional distress, can be supported “in certain circumstances, solely by a plaintiff’s testimony about his or her emotional distress.” During the jury trial, Ms. Deloughery had testified that she was “devastated” by not being promoted to captain. A co-worker also testified that the fact that Ms. Deloughery had not been promoted had “a demoralizing impact on her.” The Court concluded that it was not unreasonable for the jury to have been convinced that Ms. Deloughery suffered emotional distress, despite the fact that she had never sought professional help for the distress.

What Does This Mean For Wisconsin Employers?
Employment discrimination cases are not cheap. Although the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act[1] only allows an employee to recoup attorneys’ fees, back pay and, in some cases, front pay; an award under Title VII can also include punitive damages (allowed if reckless indifference is shown) and compensatory damages (such as, emotional distress, future economic loss, and loss of enjoyment of life). Assessing potential damages is a part of every employment discrimination claim that requires careful thought and analysis. No one can predict the outcome in every case; however, by understanding what the courts and juries have done in cases with similar facts, you will be better equipped to assess the risk in your particular case.
If you have questions regarding the above, please contact Sara Ackermann, the author of this article, or any of the attorneys in the Employment, Benefits & Labor Relations Practice Group of Ruder Ware.

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