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Legal Memorandum: Award for Emotional Distress Damages

Issue: What are the parameters for determining awards for emotional distress or mental anguish in the second Circuit?

Area of Law: Constitutional Law, Employee Law
Keywords: Emotional distress or mental anguish; Award
Jurisdiction: Federal, New York
Cited Cases: 381 F.3d 56
Cited Statutes: N.Y.C.P.L.R. § 5501(c)
Date: 10/01/2008

In Meacham v. Knolls Atomic Power Lab., 381 F.3d 56 (2d Cir. 2004), vacated on other grounds sub nom. KAPL, Inc. v. Meacham, 125 S. Ct. 1731 (2005), the court observed that when emotional distress damages stem from a plaintiff’s state law claims, the court must use the New York standard under N.Y.C.P.L.R. § 5501(c) that jury awards must be set aside where the award “deviates materially from what would be reasonable compensation,” and that courts will look to “the duration of a complainant’s condition, its severity or consequences, any physical manifestations, and any medical treatment.”  381 F.3d at 78.  The court further noted that the amount of emotional distress damages varies widely in New York cases and that some cases “uphold awards of more than $100,000 without discussion of protracted suffering, truly egregious conduct or medical treatment.”  Id.  Accordingly, the Meacham court, based on the circumstances before it, affirmed the lower courts awards of $125,000 for emotional distress to those plaintiffs who “offered no proof other than testimony establishing shock, nightmares, sleeplessness, humiliation and other subjective distress” and $175,00 to those plaintiffs who established either physical sequelae or professional treatment.

Cases in which emotional distress damages significantly exceeding $100,000 were awarded include:

Phillips v. Bowen, 278 F.3d 103 (2d Cir. 2002) (retaliation claim; $400,000 award affirmed where harassment continued over five years, and where plaintiff and her boyfriend testified in detail about her distress, physical illness and effects on their relationship and her lifestyle […]

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