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Judge affirms $1 million award in hostile work environment case

A federal judge in Tennessee has refused to reduce a $1,073,261 award of damages to a Whirlpool plant worker who was subjected to an extremely hostile work environment based on her sex and race -- an environment that ultimately led to her suffer a physical assault in the workplace. The woman was seriously and permanently injured in the attack, which the judge found Whirlpool did nothing to prevent.

According to the EEOC, which brought the case in concert with the victim, the woman worked at the now-defunct Whirlpool plant in La Vergne, Tennessee. A white male co-worker subjected her to egregious racial and sexual harassment for two months before he physically attacked her. She had reported the escalating harassment to Whirlpool management, who took no effective steps to stop it.

The woman suffered devastating physical injuries and severe emotional distress from the incident, which will prevent her from ever working again. During the four-day trial in 2009, the court heard evidence showing that the exceedingly hostile work environment Whirlpool's management allowed to persist constituted employment discrimination and was responsible for the woman's injuries and permanent disability.

In December 2009, the court awarded the woman $773,261 in back pay and front pay (past lost wages and future lost earnings), as well as $300,000 to compensate her for her injuries.

"This woman was victimized by serious, ongoing abuse, and was severely and permanently damaged as a result," said Faye Williams, a regional attorney for the EEOC. "A sizeable amount of damages was called for, and we are pleased that the judge agreed."

Should a woman who became permanently disabled from work after an attack at work be denied her lost earnings because the employer closed down?

In January of this year, Whirlpool filed a petition with the court asking for those damages to be reduced. Whirlpool claimed, among other things, that the victim should not have received so much in back and front pay because the La Vergne plant had subsequently closed and she would have lost her job anyway.

U.S. District Court Judge John T. Nixon disagreed. Courts have wide discretion in granting compensation to victims of unlawful employment discrimination, he said, in order to make the victims whole. Therefore, the court "declines to find that failing to so cut off the award of front pay to Freeman constitutes a clear error of law or manifest injustice."

Source: EEOC press release, "Judge Affirms $1 Million Judgment in EEOC Sex and Race Harassment Suit Against Whirlpool," April 1, 2011

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