Hunter Dragon worked as a cleaner, and later an expeditor, at SCA in Windsor, Connecticut. Not long after Dragon started working at SCA, as alleged in his Amended Complaint , his coworker F.M. (who was not identified in the Complaint by name) asked Dragon, in front of several coworkers, whether he had a girlfriend. Dragon forthrightly told F.M. that he was gay. F.M. and his friends thereafter began a campaign of near-daily harassing “jokes,” gestures and comments directed at Dragon based on his sexual orientation—for instance, frequently asking Dragon how his girlfriend was doing, who he was having sex with, or who he would “chaga-chaga” with—while thrusting their hips or making other gestures referring to sex.
Even as he publicly mocked Dragon with his friends, F.M. sent Dragon messages coming on to him sexually—telling Dragon he was cute, and saying he wanted to “hook up.” The two did hook up—but afterward, F.M.’s behavior became menacing: he threatened to kill Dragon if he told anyone about their encounter. Dragon was terrified that F.M. would follow through on his threat.
The Complaint alleges that F.M’s harassment only intensified after these events. The very next day at work, F.M. asked Dragon if he was pregnant in front of several coworkers in the locker room where employees were required to gown up for their work. Over the following months, he repeatedly called Dragon homophobic slurs, including “fag,” “queer,” and “gay,” for example, “here comes the fag.” F.M. and his friends regularly asked Dragon if he was pregnant, and mocked his mannerisms by imitating him in an exaggerated, gay-stereotyped way. F.M.’s ongoing harassment of Dragon also became explicitly sexual—for instance, on more than one occasion F.M. rubbed his genitalia over his pants while staring at Dragon, including through a workstation window. He often stared at Dragon while Dragon was changing clothes in the locker room, even though F.M.’s own locker was on the other side of the locker room, away from Dragon’s. On one occasion, F.M. approached Dragon’s workstation and told him, “look down,” gesturing to his groin. Dragon couldn’t avoid seeing that F.M. was pointing to F.M.’s erect genitals in his pants. Dragon told him “no, please go away.” F.M. continued to tell Dragon to “look at it.”
This verdict of $910,000 is a reminder that employers are required to take prompt action when they become aware an employee is being sexually harassed. Autozone’s failure to take action when it knew of the sexual harassment resulted in the highest sexual harassment verdict in North and South Carolina in 2018. The jury awarded $100,000 for emotional distress damages for Defendant’s violation of Title VII based on sexual harassment. It awarded $600,000 in punitive damages for the Title VII violation. In addition, the jury determined that the company was liable for intentionally inflicting emotional distress on the Plaintiff, awarding $150,000 in damages for severe emotional distress, and an additional $60,000 in punitive damages. Because Title VII caps allowable damages, the verdict was initially reduced to a total of $510,000.
AutoZoners, LLC appealed the verdict, asking for a new trial, and alternatively asking the Court to throw out $150,000 in emotional distress damages, along with $260,000 in punitive damages. The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit found there was no basis for a new trial, and that the jury’s award of damages for emotional distress under Title VII and “severe” emotional distress for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress was not duplicative. Thus, the Court upheld Plaintiff’s emotional distress damages award totaling $250,000, for violating Title VII and for intentionally inflicting emotional distress, only vacating the punitive damages award, because of the standards for holding a company legally responsible for such damages.