Study finds increased damages in sexual harassment cases despite caps

A study published in the latest issue of the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies examines the damages awarded in sexual harassment lawsuits. The author finds that even though the Civil Rights Act of 1991 amended Title VII to limit damages, litigants can sidestep these limitations by asserting federal claims under section 1983, claims for violations of state civil rights laws or other state-law tort claims. Thus, a plaintiff can assert multiple theories of liability and, in cases where the total damages sought exceeds the damages cap, argue that the damages awarded are at least partially attributable to the non-capped claims.

The study examined 232 sexual harassment cases decided from 1982 through 2004, all of which involved plaintiffs who prevailed on their claims. The author finds that cases governed by the 1991 Act are awarded statistically significant higher damages awards than preceding cases. The inclusion of state law tort and anti-discrimination claims appears to drive up damages. Additionally, courts enjoy broad discretion in applying Title VII caps, allowing them to allocate jury awards between federal and state claims and label portions of awards as "compensatory" or "punitive" as they see fit. The findings suggest that some courts are exercising this discretion in such a way as to attribute damages to uncapped claims, preserving the size of the overall award and sharply reducing, if not altogether undermining, the effectiveness of the caps.

The author's study highlights a paradox in the 1991 Civil Rights Act. While it did impose fairly stringent damages caps, the Act also specifically authorized jury trials and allowed litigants to pursue multiple avenues in an effort to win non-economic compensatory and punitive damages.


This study is published in the March issue of Journal of Empirical Legal Studies. Media wishing to receive a PDF of this article please contact [email protected]

The Journal of Empirical Legal Studies (JELS) is a peer-edited, peer-refereed, interdisciplinary journal that publishes high-quality, empirically-oriented articles of interest to scholars in a diverse range of law and law-related fields, including civil justice, corporate law, criminal justice, domestic relations, economics, finance, health care, political science, psychology, public policy, securities regulation, and sociology.

Catherine M. Sharkey is an associate professor of Law at Columbia Law School. Her principal areas of scholarship and teaching include torts, remedies, punitive damages, products liability, and empirical law and economics. Professor Sharkey is available for media questions and interviews.

Blackwell Publishing is the world's leading society publisher, partnering with 665 academic and professional societies. Blackwell publishes over 800 journals and, to date, has published more than 6,000 books, across a wide range of academic, medical, and professional subjects.

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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