(CN) - A jury's award for $1 in nominal damages and $300,000 in punitive damages to a victim of sexual harassment did not violate a mining company's due-process rights, the en banc 9th Circuit ruled Wednesday.
Angela Aguilar, the plaintiff in the case, was an employee at Asarco's Mission Mine complex in Sahuarita, Ariz., from 2005 to 2006. In her lawsuit she claimed that throughout her employment, she was sexually harassed by a supervisor, harangued by managers and ignored by human resources when she complained.
Management also allegedly refused to remove "sexually explicit graffiti" from a bathroom used only Aguilar.
Aguilar took a long leave of absence in September 2006 to deal with custody issues, and quit after returning the next month for only a few days.
After an eight-day trial on Aguilar's claims of sexual harassment, retaliation, intentional
infliction of emotional distress and constructive discharge, a federal jury found Asarco liable only for the sexual harassment claims.
The jury awarded Aguilar $1 in nominal damages, no compensatory damages and $868,750 in punitive damages. The court later reduced the award to the Title XII statutory maximum of $300,000, but a divided three-judge appellate panel reduced it further to $125,000, holding that a punitive-to-nominal ratio of 125,000-to-1 was the "highest ratio" it could find among other discrimination cases.
The appeals court in February agreed to reconsider the issue before an en banc, 11-judge panel, which unanimously reinstated the $300,000 award on Wednesday.
"There is significant and compelling evidence that management was aware of, and did little to resolve, lewd, inappropriate, and sexually aggressive behavior directed to Aguilar; sexually explicit, targeted pictures of Aguilar on the walls of the bathroom rented specifically for her use; and overly aggressive management and criticism of Aguilar by supervisors," wrote Chief Judge Sidney R. Thomas for the panel.
Regardless of the ratio considered by the three-judge panel, the en banc court found that the statute under which the jury made the award "specifies the maximum amount of damages that can be awarded, and incorporates both specified compensatory and punitive damages within the cap."
"The $300,000 dollar amount of the cap provides an extremely limited potential for recovery, and has not changed, nor been adjusted for inflation, since its adoption in 1991," Thomas wrote. "The record supports the district court's conclusion that the punitive award was made in conformance with the statute and was not otherwise in violation of due process."
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