Pa.: Female Manager Awarded $12.5 Million in Punitive Damages in Sex Bias Action

By Rosemarie Lally May 18, 2015

Punitive damages of $12.5 million were awarded by a federal jury April 21, 2015, to a female employee who was routinely harassed and called a "bitch" by her male co-workers at an insulation manufacturing plant.

The award is the largest ever for an employment discrimination case in western Pennsylvania, but is likely to be reduced due to a $300,000 cap on punitive damages in cases brought under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the federal discrimination law.

In addition, the jury awarded compensatory damages of $920,000, including back and front pay, under both Title VII and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.

Sandra Robertson, a former master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, was a shipping supervisor for Hunter Panels. She started work at Hunter after being honorably discharged following a 25-year military career, and was quickly promoted to become the only female supervisor or manager at the Smithfield operation. She regularly got excellent reviews for her job performance at Hunter.

However, Robertson claimed that male supervisors harassed and ostracized her. In July 2011, Robertson told an HR manager that she wanted to file a harassment complaint. The following day, the plant manager wrote in an e-mail that Robertson was “going over the top” by complaining. The company sent Robertson to a mandatory anger management program, "but the counselor said she didn't need it and that she was just an assertive woman that they didn't know how to deal with,” according to evidence presented at trial. Robertson stopped complaining and received a positive evaluation six months later.

However, Robertson complained to HR about harassment a second time in 2012, claiming that women were not treated equally and that she believed her job was in jeopardy because of her prior complaints of sex discrimination. Among other things, Robertson was paid much less than the male supervisor she had replaced. She told HR that the company retaliated against her for reporting sexist language other employees allegedly used to describe her and their allegations that she was unprofessional, "abrasive and demeaning." Male managers subsequently commented in emails that she “may be losing control again” and “this is crazy.” She was fired in April 2012 within a few weeks of her second complaint. The reasons cited for her termination were poor job performance and an abrasive management style.

Metadata played a central role in the case. Robertson’s lawyers were able to show that Hunter had incorrectly dated some of the documents in her personnel file. For example, one document in her personnel file cited as support for disciplining her was falsely dated as occurring prior to her harassment complaint, but the metadata showed that the documents had been created after she had filed her complaint.

The company’s falsification of personnel documents after receiving her second complaint, testimony from several male witnesses corroborating her claims that the plant operated as a “boys’ club,” and Robertson’s own credibility as a witness resulted in the jury awarding the large punitive damages verdict, according to her attorneys.

Robertson v. Hunter Panels, W.D. Pa., 2:2013-cv-01047 (April 16, 2015).

Rosemarie Lally, J.D., is a freelance legal writer and editor based in Washington, D.C.

Evidence of Gender Discrimination. Robertson’s gender discrimination claim was supported by at least one male employee who stated that managers and supervisors at the plant felt threatened by Robertson’s success.

Subjective Termination Reason. Hunter’s claimed that Robertson was terminated because of her unprofessional behavior towards employees and other supervisors. Robertson was able to minimize the strength of this defense by claiming that male employees and managers had a negative view of assertive and successful women.

Alleged Fabrication of Documents. Robertson’s personnel file contained a number of memos documenting her alleged poor performance. Robertson’s attorney obtained the Microsoft Word files for each memo, and hired a forensic expert to review them. The expert concluded that several of the memos were created or modified after Robertson complained. Around the time of Robertson’s second harassment complaint, the plant manager wrote an e-mail predicting that documents critical of Robertson’s performance “will end up being generated.” Robertson’s attorney argued that Hunter backdated these documents to justify her termination.

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