Orlando Federal Court Slashes Punitive Damages Award to Plaintiff

A federal judge in Orlando has reduced a $5.378 million jury award to $610,000 in a case of sexual harassment allegedly committed by a wealthy timeshare developer.  The plaintiff, a spa employee at one of the developer's properties, brought suit after allegedly rejecting the developer's sexual advances, including a proposal for a ménage à trois with the developer's wife. 

The plaintiff's claims included sexual harassment under Title VII and the Florida Civil Rights Act, and battery.  The jury found that the statutory claims were untimely, but found for the plaintiff on her battery claim.  The court described the trial as "a classic 'he said, she said' case where the jury was compelled to choose which side it found credible."  The jury awarded the plaintiff $102,233.14 in compensatory damages, and $5,276,640.00 in punitive damages. 

In a lengthy post-trial order, Judge John Antoon II of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida upheld the compensatory damages award.  "Considering the statutory and judicially-noted criteria," the Court wrote, "the Court is unable to conclude that the award of just over $100,000 in this case is outside the “reasonable range,” though it is certainly at the upper end of that range." Courts have recognized that review of “‘awards of compensatory damages for intangible, emotional harms is deferential to the fact finder because the harm is subjective and evaluating it depends considerably on the demeanor of the witnesses.’”

With regard to the punitive damages award, Judge Antoon noted that "Florida courts have held that the commission of intentional battery 'supplies the requisite proof . . . justifying a punitive damages award.'"  However, "[t]he Florida legislature has placed caps on punitive damages awards, and the instant award is subject to those caps. Generally, '[a]n award of punitive damages may not exceed the greater of . . . [t]hree times the amount of compensatory damages . . . or . . . [t]he sum of $500,000.” § 768.73(1)(a), Fla. Stat."

The court went on to note that "[t]he only potentially applicable exception to this limitation is '[w]here the fact finder determines that at the time of injury the defendant had a specific intent to harm the claimant and determines that the defendant’s conduct did in fact harm the claimant, there shall be no cap on punitive damages.'" In what appears to have been an error by the plaintiff's attorneys, Judge Antoon noted that "the proposed verdict form that Plaintiff proposed before trial did not ask the jury to make these findings. Plaintiff cannot now claim entitlement to uncapped punitive
damages without these findings in the face of a plainly written Florida statute that requires
specific determinations by the fact finder in order for the caps not to apply."

The case is Myers v. Central Fla. Invs. Inc., M.D. Fla., No. 6:04-CV-1542-Orl-28DAB (M.D. Fla.).  Defendants have filed an appeal with the Eleventh Circuit.

Court Dismisses Employee's Malicious Prosecution and False Arrest Claims

Florida employers who are concerned about reporting to the police employees whom they suspect of stealing will be encouraged by a recent decision by U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez, Molina v. Jiffy Lube Int'l, Inc., Case No. 07-22644-CIV-MARTINEZ-BROWN (S.D. Fla., October 8, 2008)

The case involved missing bank deposits.  Jiffy Lube conducted an internal investigation, then gave the information gathered during its investigation to a local police detective.  That information included the names of the three employees who had access to the missing deposits.  One of those employees was the plaintiff, Molina.  The detective conducted his own investigation, which included interviewing the employees with Jiffy Lube's cooperation. The detective's investigation led to Molina's arrest.  The State Attorney's office conducted its own investigation, then filed charges of grand theft against Molina.  The criminal charges were later dropped. Molina then filed suit against Jiffy Lube for malicious prosecution and false arrest. 

In dismissing the claims on Jiffy Lube's motion for summary judgment, Judge Martinez noted several points of law that should give comfort to Florida employers in similar situations.  Among them:

  • An employer will not be held liable for malicious prosecution action if it simply gives a statement of fact to the authorities -- assuming the employer does not know it to be false -- and leaves the decision to prosecute solely in the hands of the authorities.
  • To prevail in a malicious prosecution action, the burden is on the plaintiff to establish a
    lack of probable cause to initiate the criminal proceedings.  However, the evidence need not be so strong that it unquestionably proves that the plaintiff is guilty. The employer does not have to be certain of the outcome of the criminal proceeding to have probable cause for initiating it.
  • In a false arrest claim, an employer will not be held liable where it neither detained the plaintiff nor instigated the plaintiff's arrest by law enforcement officers. If the employer makes an honest, good faith mistake in reporting an incident, the mere fact that its communication to an officer may have caused the plaintiff's arrest does not make the employer liable when it did not in fact request any detention. 
  • An honest, good faith mistake in reporting an incident may extend even to identifying the plaintiff as a suspect, if the employer acts reasonably in doing so.

Congratulations to my colleagues Robin Symons and Jackie De Leon on their hard-earned victory.