Jury Punishes Hospital for Harassment and Bullying of Female Employee

Eye-popping.  That’s the only way to describe the recent $168 million awarded to a California woman in a sexual harassment and retaliation case.  The woman, Ani Chopourian, worked as a physician assistant (“PA”) at a Sacramento hospital.   She had repeatedly complained to hospital management about the crude and boorish sexual comments and behavior displayed by the surgeons and other medical staff, as well as patient care concerns.  Ms. Chopourian’s complaints fell on deaf ears.  She was terminated days after her final complaint.  Although the hospital claimed she was terminated for poor performance, the jury didn’t buy it.  To add insult to injury, after Ms. Chopourian was terminated and secured another PA job with a medical group that saw patients at the hospital, the hospital revoked her hospital privileges.  This decision forced her new employer to terminate her employment and prevented her from getting another PA position in the community.  Not surprisingly, the hospital’s actions infuriated the jury.  The $168 million award – that included $125 million in punitive damages – was clearly meant to punish the hospital for what the jury perceived as vindictive and mean-spirited treatment of Ms. Chopourian.

This case underscores what any prudent employer should already know.  Take employee complaints of harassing and unprofessional behavior seriously.  No one should be able to get away with this type of conduct, whether the CEO, a highly acclaimed surgeon, or your most productive sales employee.   And, for gosh sake, think carefully (and consult with HR) before taking any negative personnel action against an employee who complains about this type of behavior shortly after a complaint is made, unless you have clear and overwhelming evidence of improper conduct.  Employers who forget these basic principles may have to answer to a jury one day.