Knicks Harassment Case Settled for $11.5 Million

Former New York Knicks executive Anucha Browne Sanders has settled her sexual harassment case against Madison Square Garden for $11.5 million. A jury found that she was harassed by Isiah Thomas. It awarded $11.6 million in punitive damages against Madison Square Garden, but had yet to award compensatory damages against it or Thomas.

The jury’s finding of harassment would very likely have been upheld on appeal.

But its huge award of damages would almost certainly have been cut on appeal. Under Supreme Court precedent, punitive damages are not supposed to exceed compensatory damages by a large ratio. And the jury had not even awarded compensatory damages at the time it issued its giant punitive damages award. It is hard to see Sanders claiming more than a million dollars in compensatory damages, taking into account any lost wages or emotional distress damages (emotional distress damages upheld in New York State seldom exceed $250,000 for harassment and discrimination cases; larger jury awards tend to be reduced either by the trial judge or on appeal). That’s not enough to support an $11 million punitive damages award. The Supreme Court has said that punitive damages that exceed compensatory damages by a 10-to-1 ratio are presumptively unconstitutional, especially when the plaintiff has received a substantial compensatory damages award (a compensatory damages award of $100,000 or more would certainly be substantial), in which case punitive damages should not greatly exceed compensatory damages.

(Incidentally, in non-harassment cases, even people who are permanently disabled as a result of their employers’ recklessness don’t receive anything remotely like $11 million, but that’s primarily a fairness issue, not a legal one).

Madison Square Garden nevertheless settled, owing to strong pressure from the NBA Commissioner, who worried about the effect of the case and the massive publicity it generated on Major League Baseball’s image.

I earlier discussed how some distasteful statements by Isiah Thomas were ironically consistent with the ideologically-driven conceptions of sexual and racial harassment promoted by some feminist academics, such as the “reasonable African-American” and “reasonable woman” standards that they argue should replace the “reasonable person” standard that generally applies in American tort and employment law.