$2.2M Sexual Harassment Verdict
LOS ANGELES — A superior court jury hit Fidelity National Management Services LLC with a $1.95 million punitive damages verdict on Wednesday, finding that the company — including veteran attorney superiors — maliciously conducted an investigation of a sexual harassment claim by a paralegal against an in-house lawyer.
While the original verdict on April 13 granting the plaintiff $250,000 was not unanimous, every juror agreed some punitive damages were warranted.
Soledad Albarracin sued her supervisor, now-retired attorney Robert Gardner Wilson, and their former employer, claiming he followed her to her hotel room, propositioned her and tried to kiss her during a company retreat in Colorado Springs.
The suit also accused the company of sweeping the incident under the rug and firing her as retaliation for the complaints. Albarracin v. Wilson et al., BC642922 (L.A. Super. Ct., filed Feb 6, 2016).
After a two-week trial in front of Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Samantha P. Jessner, the jury awarded past damages for emotional distress, retaliation, and wrongful termination but no future damages.
"I hope that this is a good example of what corporations can face if they don't treat employees fairly in harassment or any other claims. It's a great example of our system — 12 people looking at facts and deciding to send a message," said Mike Arias of Arias Sanguinetti Wang & Torrijos LLP, who represented Albarracin.
"This result goes to show what happens with preparation and hard work and not giving up," said co-counsel Griselda S. Rodriguez of Rodriguez & Tran LLP. This was the first trial for Rodriguez, who conducted the emotional direct examination of Albarracin.
Henry L. Sanchez of Jackson Lewis PC, who led the defense team, declined to comment on the verdict.
In his argument for punitive damages, Arias called the company's conduct reprehensible and highlighted its $7.665 billion in 2017 revenue. He also pointed out they had no problem flying witnesses in from locations across the country to testify about his client's supposed incompetence at work.
"How many days of that revenue will it take to teach them that you do not do what you did in this case?" Arias asked.
"If it doesn't hurt, they'll do it again," he added.
Arias also reminded the jury that during the company's investigation they did not take notes of statements, and that the head of corporate human resources said she treated the complaint differently because it took place outside of the workplace at a retreat.
In his arguments against punitive damages, Sanchez insisted the company did everything in its power to properly investigate Albarracin's claims and that her firing was not retaliatory. The company says she was fired because she exceeded the amount of allowed personal leave after the incident and did not submit proper documentation from her doctors to gain an extension.
"There is no indication whatsoever of the bad behavior the plaintiff wants to paint," Sanchez told the jury 12 days after they found in a verdict she was harassed. The jury deliberated four hours for the main verdict and about two and a half hours to reach the punitive damages amount.
In his argument against punitive damages, Sanchez pointed out a high-level executive from Fidelity was present in the courtroom and said he came because he cared. He reiterated the defense case that Albarracin never planned to return to work and strategically hired a lawyer to sue the company because she knew her job was in danger.
Lori E. Andrus of Andrus Anderson LLP, who was not involved in the case, commented that the original 9-3 verdict and unanimous punitive damages cast a shadow of doubt on such internal investigations. She noted that in this case Albarracin's superiors were attorneys themselves.
"It does make you question the effectiveness of these investigations in the first place and whether their true purpose is to get to the truth or to protect the company?' she said. "It does seem counterintuitive that lawyers who know better are misbehaving, but we have many examples of people who should know better getting away with despicable acts, and obviously the jurors felt that?'
The defendant, Wilson, was a 40-year legal veteran at the time of his retirement, according to his attorneys.
"If the company didn't handle the investigation properly, or were trying to cover it up or minimize it or weren't thorough, that in and of itself was misconduct and misconduct that the jurors were assessing independently?' she said.
Finally, Andrus applauded the punitive amount.
"They are going to get away with as much as they can for as long as they can get away with it. If you don't hit them where it's going to hurt, they won't change?' she said.