Businesses that turn a blind eye to sexual harassment have been put on notice. The March 2 decision by a Federal New York jury to award $13.4 million to Rosanna Mayo-Coleman after she endured long-running harassment at American Sugar Holding Inc—a parent of Domino Sugar—marks a new age in the way area companies will be held accountable for such issues.
According to Mayo-Coleman’s lead council, Megan Goddard (pictured right) of Goddard Law, the verdict may encourage others in a similar situation to report abuse. “I think first and foremost, that this verdict will cause a change in the way employees handle discrimination,” says Goddard. “Rosanna Mayo-Coleman has inspired employees to report discrimination and to seek help from the courts if their employers won’t protect them. When more employees report discrimination and are willing to go all the way, companies will have no choice but to do what they are legally required to do — protect their employees. This verdict makes it clear that employees do have power.”
Litigation expert Nathaniel K. Charny Esq. (pictured below) of Charny & Wheeler, who argued the case with Goddard and Gabriella Vinci of Nesenoff & Miltenberg LLP, agrees the verdict is a watershed moment. “This represents one of the largest verdicts of its kind,” says Charny. “While Ms. Mayo-Coleman suffered under these conditions for a period of years, juries have not been awarding seven- and eight-figure damages in this context. With increasing public attention on the prevalence of harassment, this kind of an award goes a long way towards putting employers and their lawyers on notice — going to trial is now proving to be a particularly risky proposition.”
Mayo-Coleman worked as a storeroom attendant at American Sugar Holdings’ Yonkers refinery, where a manager harassed her by commenting on her looks and later soliciting her. Once his advances were rejected, he began what has been described as an enduring campaign of gender-based hostility that was ignored by the company despite the many complaints from Ms. Mayo-Coleman and others. American Sugar Holding did lead an investigation that was deemed ineffective. Mayo-Coleman bounced from lawyer to lawyer, but upon meeting her, Goddard knew the case was vitally important despite any apprehensions.
“Rosanna had been through many attorneys by the time she came to me, and she had been representing herself, which made me a little apprehensive about her case,” says Goddard. “When I met her though, and learned about Ms. Mayo-Coleman, her resolve, and the breadth of the discrimination she experienced I knew I had to take her case. Ms. Mayo-Coleman still worked for the company (and still does today) and she needed her job, but she knew that she had the right to work in a harassment-free environment and she was not going to stop pursuing her rights, no matter what.”
When it came time to argue the case, Goddard and Charny took a two-pronged approach: “Our case relied on two main components,” explains Charny. “First, that the misconduct rose to the level of violative gender-based hostility in the workplace, and second, that the company knew about and did less than nothing in response.”
Charny says that the sexual harassment began in 2008 and continued even after Ms. Mayo-Coleman’s supervisor left employment for unrelated reasons in 2013. “Yet, the company waited until August 2012 to conduct an alleged investigation into Ms. Mayo-Coleman’s complaints of gender-based hostility in the workplace, leaving her to continue suffering from harassment for years,” he says. “And even once the company did conduct an investigation, it was grossly inadequate.”
With the jury siding with Mayo-Coleman and handing over a historic verdict, Goddard feels that true change is in the air. “Companies need to actively promote a discrimination-free environment; they can’t protect harassers, no matter how much money they might make for the company; and they have to make sure that retaliation is forbidden and that reporters are protected,” says Goddard. “But really, there is no magic to this, it’s common sense. Companies have the power and the resources to provide a discrimination- and harassment-free workplace, they just have to make the choice to do so.”