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Court Nixes Damages Cap in Workplace Harassment Suit

The Supreme Court on Monday overturned a cap on certain damages workers can be awarded in cases involving mistreatment in the workplace.

By a vote of 8-0, the high court sided with a former chemical plant worker who claimed her male colleagues shunned her and sabotaged her work. She had sued to overturn a $300,000 cap that a federal appeals court applied to her case.

In doing so, the Supreme Court held that workers wronged on the job cannot be limited to $300,000 in "front pay" damages — money they presumably would have earned had the employer acted correctly to eliminate any alleged harassment.

The ruling is a victory for civil liberties and worker rights groups, which argued the cap is arbitrary and would benefit businesses at the expense of some victims of harassment and other mistreatment.

It is a defeat for the business community, which argued that front-pay awards themselves can be arbitrary and out of proportion to the worker's actual losses.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor did not participate in the ruling, presumably because she owns stock in DuPont, the company where Pollard worked.

Sharon B. Pollard claimed she endured years of mounting abuse that left her traumatized and unable to continue work at a DuPont plant, and that the company did nothing to help her.

Harassment began in 1987, Pollard alleged, when a male co-worker opened a Bible on her desk to the passage: "I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over man. She must be silent."

The overwhelmingly male work force allied to harass and undermine her, including staging false alarms on the shop floor when she was in charge, or making it appear she could not handle her duties, she alleged.

Eventually, Pollard claimed, her co-workers systematically shunned her after she was chosen to address a group of girls visiting the Tennessee plant for "Take Your Daughters to Work Day" in 1994.

Lower courts that found Pollard was the victim of harassment also limited the amount of money she could collect from DuPont. At issue was an estimated $800,000 in wages and benefits that Pollard presumably would have earned had she been able to go on working at the chemical plant.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Cincinnati, ruled in another case in 1998 that front pay amounts to compensatory damages, and is thus subject to a $300,000 cap set by Congress as part of 1991 amendments to the Civil Rights Act. The appeals court applied the same reasoning to Pollard's case.

The 1991 law allowed people who sue successfully for job discrimination to collect up to $300,000 in damages to compensate for financial harm and punish an employer's misconduct. The law said the limit did not apply to back pay and other remedies authorized under the pre-1991 law.

Other federal courts have not applied the 1991 cap to front pay in harassment cases, and the Supreme Court found it unjustified.

Congress left the door open for front-pay awards by authorizing "such affirmative action as may be appropriate," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court.

"We conclude that front-pay awards in lieu of reinstatement fit within this statutory term," Thomas wrote.

The case is Pollard v. DuPont, 00-763.