Ani Chopourian, a 43–year-old surgeon’s assistant, received a $167.7 million dollar award this week from a California jury for sexual harassment. It is believed to be the largest verdict ever granted to a single victim for sexual harassment in the United States.
The jury allocated $42.7 million as compensation for lost wages and mental anguish. The balance – $125 million – was awarded as “punitive damages,” a device utilized by the legal system to punish defendants for misconduct and deter them from repeating bad behavior.
The defendant? Mercy General Hospital, owned by Catholic Healthcare West and recently renamed “Dignity Health.”
The jury’s desire to motivate changed behavior was perhaps amplified by the setting of many of the incidents: cardiovascular operating rooms. Ms. Chopourian told of being bullied by a surgeon who stabbed her with a needle and who, in a fit of anger, broke the ribs of an anesthetized patient.
Another heart surgeon routinely greeted her with the words, “I’m horny,” punctuated by a slap on her buttocks. Ms. Chopourian also alleged she had been grabbed by her waist and pulled into men’s laps. Additionally, she was subject to disparaging remarks about her Armenian heritage and called “a stupid chick.”
A Yale graduate, Chopourian documented the alleged abuse, a key step in dealing with sexual harassment. She filed at least 18 complaints and reported her treatment to the hospital’s human relations department.
She was fired days after filing the last of her complaints about poor patient care and bullying by doctors. The hospital said she was fired for misconduct. However, the jury disagreed.
Just what is sexual harassment? It is “unwelcome verbal, visual, or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is severe or pervasive and affects working conditions or creates a hostile work environment.”
If you believe you have been sexually harassed, you should take the following steps:
1. Say “no” or object to your treatment clearly. Better to say you’re not interested in dating than to say you’re busy. If the harassment takes the form of crude jokes, say “I find that offensive.” If the harassment doesn’t stop, write the harasser a letter or e-mail requesting that he stop, and keep a copy.
2. Write down specifics of what happened, including the date, place, offensive conduct, and possible witnesses. If there are witnesses, ask them to write up the incident, too. Do this for each instance. Because your claim may boil down to he said, she said, this step is vitally important to enhance your credibility. The written record should not be kept at work.
3. Report the harassment to your supervisor, the human relations department, or other appropriate authority at work. Make the report in writing if possible. This step is particularly important if the person harassing you is a co-worker, client, or customer, because the employer may be unaware of what is happening. Make notes about your meeting.
4. Avoid the temptation to talk about the situation, or you may be subject to a defamation claim.
5. Continue to keep a written record, including the notes described in step two above, copies of all correspondence, and notes of any meetings about your complaint.
6. Review your personnel file. In some states, you have a legal right to make a copy of its contents.
7. Follow whatever “official” procedure your company has for handling sexual harassment complaints. Find it in your employee manual or ask human relations.
8. As these steps escalate, you may suffer physical or psychological damage. See your doctor for help and documentation.
9. Involve your union if you’re unionized.
10. File a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency, or with your state’s fair employment agency. The EEOC hotline is 800-669-4000. Be prompt! The deadline for filing your complaint may be as soon as 180 days from the act of harassment.
11. File a private lawsuit after you have filed with a governmental agency. You can ask a court for money damages, to reinstate you in your job, or to force your employer to adopt practices that would deter future harassment. Because a determination of sexual harassment rests on the facts of each case, an experienced attorney can best evaluate the merits of your claim.
12. Prepare yourself for the results of taking these steps. Your employer may retaliate. You may have trouble finding another job; you may be branded a troublemaker; you may be shunned by other workers (including women); you may open up your personal life to scrutiny by others; you may incur legal fees; and you may feel anxious, isolated, and depressed. Consider joining a support group.
It takes courage and determination to pursue a sexual harassment claim. Ms. Chopourian had a large measure of both.
If you or someone you know has been sexually harassed, consider contacting one of the following resources for help: Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), 9to5, or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Kate McGuinness is a lawyer who spent 17 years at Biglaw before becoming the general counsel of a Fortune 500 corporation. After leaving that position, she studied creative writing and is the author of a legal suspense novel, Terminal Ambition, which will be published soon. She is an advocate for women and tweets as @womnsrightswrter.