Sexual harassment claims often involve salacious allegations that can form the basis of a punitive damages award, the purpose of which is not to compensate the victim but to punish the wrongdoer and thus deter similar misconduct in the future. Fox’s payment to Gretchen Carlson of reportedly $20 million to settle sexual harassment allegations against its ousted founder, Roger Ailes, recently brought workplace sexual harassment into the limelight. According to her complaint, among other incidents, Ailes allegedly told Carlson: “I think you and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago and then you’d be good and better and I’d be good and better … sometimes problems are easier to solve [that way].” The size of the settlement suggests that Fox may have been concerned about a jury awarding Carlson significant punitive damages.
More recently, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) in Gyulakian v. Lexus of Watertown had the opportunity to clarify in what circumstances a jury may award punitive damages in sexual harassment cases under the Fair Employment Practices Act, namely M.G.L. c. 151B, §9. There, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff of $40,000 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages. In response to the defendants’ Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict (JNOV) pursuant to Massachusetts Rule of Civil Procedure 50, the trial judge wiped out the jury’s punitive damages award and upheld the compensatory award. Both parties appealed and the SJC granted direct appellate review.