Iowa Supreme Court upends sizable jury award for sexual harassment plaintiff

 April 14, 2024

A plaintiff in a sexual harassment lawsuit has just experienced a disappointing reversal of fortune that will surely spark significant debate concerning damage awards in such cases.

As the Associated Press explains, the Iowa Supreme Court has just overturned a sizable damage award provided by a jury to an employee from the state Department of Human Services.

State Supreme Court overturns award

According to the AP, a host of inappropriate and sexually charged comments made by a superior to the aforementioned social worker initially resulted in a damage award of $790,000.

However, the justices of Iowa's highest court have since determined that such a sizable award was unjustified and must be remedied.

The court had concerns about the evidence put forward by Tracy White, the employee at issue.

Specifically, the jurists questioned whether it was sufficiently “severe or pervasive” to require such a substantial award of damages.

Background of case

White filed suit back in 2019, arguing that she was forced to endure an ongoing pattern of harassment an inappropriate sexual conduct on the part of colleagues and superiors.

At issue in the case were allegations of graphic and often-lewd remarks from others in the workplace, including jokes from White's boss regarding leather clothing and whips.

White also claimed that department managers routinely favored those deemed more attractive and less assertive in their dealings with colleagues and tolerated references to women as “eye candy.”

At the conclusion of her case in which she claimed that the work environment caused her to suffer from depression, shingles, and other stress-related conditions, White was awarded $260,000 for harms experienced in the past and $530,000 for future harms.

Justices say no

In ruling against the significant financial award, the Supreme Court expressed skepticism regarding the severity and pervasive nature of the conduct alleged.

Further, the justices observed, much of the conduct at issue was targeted at other employees besides herself.

The court also noted that some of the details of harassment presented at trial included incidents of which White herself had not even been previously aware, with Justice Thomas Waterman stating that it was “well settled” that plaintiffs are not permitted to rely on evidence of which they had no prior knowledge.

Paige Fiedler, White's lawyer, expressed her client's gratitude to the jurors who believed she was entitled to the initial award and lamented what she said was the Supreme Court's propensity for disregarding the jury's factual findings.

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