HR Management & Compliance

Solo Practitioner’s Assistant Wins Sexual Harassment Suit

An attorney with a solo legal practice got what was coming to him when his legal assistant finally sued him after years of relentless and horrific mistreatment. She was awarded almost $200,000 in damages. You’re unlikely to feel any sympathy for the attorney, but you can try to learn a thing or two from his mistakes.

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Source: Photographee.eu / shutterstock

Litany of Disturbing Allegations

In 2012, Maria Valentina Spagnuolo began working as a legal assistant for Edward P. Holzberg, an attorney with a solo legal practice in Essex County, Massachusetts. Her desk was located in the firm’s reception area, across from his office. When the lawyer was in the office, he worked directly with her as her supervisor.

Spagnuolo alleged Holzberg made numerous comments to her over the course of several years and engaged in repeated behaviors constituting unlawful conduct. Among other things, she accused him of:

  • Calling her stupid and a moron as well as a bitch, a slut, and a whore;
  • Screaming in her face;
  • Proclaiming men are intelligent and women are stupid;
  • Making comments about her appearance;
  • Standing close behind her to look at her cleavage; and
  • Describing his sexual encounters in explicit detail to her.

Spagnuolo also claimed Holzberg made numerous racist comments to her about African-American and Hispanic people, forced her to read e-mails containing racist comments and jokes, and made fun of her accent.

Spagnuolo ultimately left Holzberg’s employment after an incident during which he screamed at her and told her to get out of the office. She later filed a lawsuit alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED), sexual harassment, and constructive discharge (i.e., under the oppressive work conditions, any reasonable person would have been forced to quit).

At trial, a jury found Holzberg was liable to Spagnuolo for IIED, sexual harassment, and constructive discharge. For the IIED claim, she was awarded $20,000 in compensatory damages. For the harassment charge, she received $20,000 in compensatory damages as well $150,000 in punitive damages. Holzberg appealed.

Massachusetts Appellate Court’s Opinion

Holzberg tried to argue Spagnuolo’s claims were barred by the exclusivity provision of the Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Act. Under the provision, an employee who suffers an injury in the course of employment is restricted to a workers’ comp claim and cannot file a separate action related to the injury.

The Massachusetts appeals court disagreed and rejected Holzberg’s argument. The court pointed to an exception to the exclusivity provision in situations when an “intentional tort” (or wrongful personal injury) is committed by a “co-employee” that “was in no way within the scope of employment furthering the interests of the employer.”

Holzberg argued he was an employer and not a coemployee, but the court rejected his position, reasoning the exception doesn’t hinge on the perpetrator’s status. Instead, the critical question is whether the alleged conduct furthers the employer’s business. Here, the alleged conduct (sexual and racial harassment) didn’t further the attorney’s business interests. Thus, the workers’ comp exclusivity provision didn’t bar Spagnuolo’s IIED claim.

Holzberg made other arguments to the appeals court including (1) the $150,000 in punitive damages was redundant and against the weight of the evidence, (2) he was improperly denied the opportunity to introduce certain evidence at the trial in the lower court, (3) there wasn’t enough proof to support the IIED claim, and (4) the judge should have excluded what he called “outlandish claims” made by Spagnuolo and her witnesses. The appeals court rejected all of the arguments and affirmed the jury’s award. Spagnuolo v. Holzberg (Massachusetts Appeals Court, 2020).

Bottom Line

You should already know not to treat your employees the way Holzberg is accused of managing Spagnuolo. That goes without saying. But you also should know you could face a civil lawsuit from an employee who is harassed by a coworker or owner (read: status doesn’t matter!) and claims emotional distress.

Don’t turn a blind eye to the type of harassing or otherwise unlawful conduct a court will likely find doesn’t further the employer’s interests.

Meaghan E. Murphy is an associate at the firm of Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., in Springfield, Massachusetts. You can reach her at mmurphy@skoler-abbott.com.