In a partially published and partially unpublished decision in Fuentes v. AutoZone, Inc., the California Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment for alleged sexual harassment damages of $160,000.00 against the two alleged harassers and against the employer and affirmed the trial court's award of $677,025.00 in attorney's fees and $23,898.76 for a total award of $860,923.76. The Court of Appeal rejected AutoZone's argument that the verdict was not supported by substantial evidence and rejected AutoZone's argument that the attorney's fees award was inflated.
Although the decision breaks little new ground, it does offer a number of takeaways for California employers:
- The jury found each of the two alleged harassers to be 50% responsible for Fuentes' alleged damages of $160,000, but since an employer is under California law strictly liable for sexual harassment by supervisors, the entire judgment was awarded against AutoZone.
- Although the allegedly harassing conduct occurred over a relatively compressed period of time (approximately three weeks), the Court of Appeal held there was substantial evidence that the alleged harassment was both pervasive and severe, which are required showings when the plaintiff's theory of liability is a hostile work environment based on alleged sexual harassment.
- Appellate courts are reluctant to overturn jury findings of fact, and appellate courts generally will not reweigh the evidence or credibility determinations made by a jury.
- "Reasonable" attorney's fees (here $677,025.00) can greatly exceed the amount of damages awarded to an alleged victim of sexual harassment.