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Arizona v. ASARCO LLC

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

December 10, 2014

STATE OF ARIZONA; TERRY L. GODDARD, Attorney General for the State of Arizona; ARIZONA DEPARTMENT OF LAW, Civil Rights Division, Plaintiffs-Appellees, ANGELA AGUILAR, Intervenor-Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
ASARCO LLC, Defendant-Appellant

Argued and Submitted En Banc June 18, 2014, Seattle, Washington

Page 1051

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Arizona. D.C. No. 4:08-cv-00441-MWB. Mark W. Bennett, District Judge, Presiding.

AFFIRMED.

SUMMARY[*]

Title VII / Punitive Damages

Affirming the district court's judgment, the en banc court held that a $300,000 punitive damages verdict, in a Title VII sexual harassment case in which only nominal damages were awarded, comported with due process.

The en banc court concluded that punitive damages awards conferred under 42 U.S.C. § 1981a, which imposes a $300,000 cap on compensatory and punitive damages, comport with due process because the statute's provisions meet the constitutional concerns underlying BMW of N. Am., Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559, 116 S.Ct. 1589, 134 L.Ed.2d 809 (1996). The en banc court stated that the statute provides specific notice of proscribed conduct. It 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 been changed, nor been adjusted for inflation, since its adoption in 1991. As a result, and due to the circumstances of this case, including the fact that the jury awarded only nominal, and not compensatory damages, the en banc court declined to rigidly apply Gore 's three guideposts to the award in this case. The en banc court affirmed 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.

The en banc court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in admitting evidence of sexually explicit graffiti.

The en banc court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in awarding attorneys' fees to the plaintiff.

David T. Barton (argued), Eric B. Johnson, and Brian A. Howie, Quarles & Brady LLP, Phoenix, Arizona, for Defendant-Appellant.

Thomas C. Horne, Ann Hobart, and Leslie Ross, Assistant Attorneys General, State of Arizona Department of Law, Civil Rights Division, Phoenix, Arizona, for Plaintiff-Appellee State of Arizona.

Eric Schnapper (argued), University of Washington Law School; Jenne S. Forbes, Waterfall, Economidis, Caldwell, Hanshaw & Villamana, P.C., Tucson, Arizona, for Intervenor-Plaintiff Appellee.

Julie L. Gantz (argued), Attorney, P. David Lopez, General Counsel, Lorraine C. Davis, Acting Associate General Counsel, Jennifer S. Goldstein, Acting Assistant General Counsel, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Washington, D.C., for Amicus Curiae United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Before: Sidney R. Thomas, Chief Judge, and Stephen Reinhardt, Alex Kozinski, Barry G. Silverman, Ronald M. Gould, Marsha S. Berzon, Richard R. Clifton, N. Randy Smith, Mary H. Murguia, Morgan Christen, and Jacqueline H. Nguyen, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

Page 1052

THOMAS, Chief Judge.

This appeal presents the question of whether a $300,000 punitive damages verdict,

Page 1053

in a Title VII sexual harassment case in which only nominal damages were awarded, comports with due process. Given the statutory scheme that governs punitive damages in Title VII cases and the circumstances of this case, we conclude that the award does not violate due process. We affirm the judgment of the district court.

I

ASARCO, LLC (" ASARCO" ) operates the Mission Mine complex in Sahuarita, Arizona, near Tucson. Mission Mine includes a copper mine from which copper ore is extracted and a mill facility in which the ore is crushed, filtered, and refined. Angela Aguilar worked at the Mission Mine complex from December 2005 through November 2006. She started as a mill laborer and became a car loader operator in March 2006. A month later, she then became a filter operator in the filter plant and two months later, a rod and ball mill person. Aguilar alleges that during her time at ASARCO, she was subjected to sexual harassment, retaliation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and was constructively discharged from her employment.

The State of Arizona filed suit against ASARCO under the Arizona Civil Rights Act in Pima County Superior Court, alleging harassment, disparate treatment, and retaliation against Aguilar. Aguilar subsequently filed her own lawsuit against ASARCO, alleging harassment, constructive discharge, and retaliation under Title VII. The proceedings were consolidated and removed to the United States District Court for the District of Arizona.

After an eight-day trial, the jury found ASARCO liable on Aguilar's sexual harassment claims, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2, but not on her constructive discharge or retaliation claims. The jury awarded no compensatory damages, but awarded $1 in nominal and $868,750 in punitive damages. The jury was instructed on the standard for granting punitive damages found in 42 U.S.C. § 1981a(b). Following the judgment, ASARCO filed a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law, contending, in part, that the punitive damages award was unconstitutionally excessive. In the alternative, it urged the court to grant a new trial because of evidentiary errors.

The district court rejected the motion for judgment as a matter of law. Applying the due process analysis in BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559, 116 S.Ct. 1589, 134 L.Ed.2d 809 (1996), it concluded the punitive damages award was not unconstitutional but, given the $300,000 cap on compensatory and punitive damages found in ยง 1981a(b)(3)(D), reduced the award to $300,000. The court also rejected ASARCO's new trial motion, and granted Aguilar's request for injunctive relief, directing ASARCO to update ...


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