Maria N. Gracia, Plaintiff-Appellee,
Sig matron International, Inc., Defendant-Appellant.
September 8, 2016
from the United States District Court for the Northern
District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 1:11-v-07604 -
Edmond E. Chang, Judge.
Fla um, ROVER, and SYKES, Circuit Judges.
ROVNER, Circuit Judge.
Gracia sued her employer, SigmaTron, International, Inc., for
sexual harassment and for terminating her in retaliation for
reporting sexual harassment. A jury found in favor of
SigmaTron on the claim of sexual harassment but returned a
verdict for Gracia on the retaliation count. SigmaTron
challenges both the judgment in Gracia's favor and the
amount of damages awarded by the jury. We affirm.
Gracia entered the workforce at the age of sixteen. After
holding jobs at Burger King, Dollar Tree and various staffing
companies, Gracia began working on the assembly line for the
defendant, SigmaTron, in 1999. SigmaTron is an international,
publicly-traded company that manufactures printed circuit
board assemblies. The company has approximately 2500
employees at manufacturing facilities in the United States,
Mexico, Taiwan and Vietnam. Its products are used in
aviation, home appliances and medical devices, among other
applications. A highly regarded employee at SigmaTron,
Gracia was promoted multiple times over the
years until she achieved the position of assembly supervisor
in 2004 or 2005.
capacity as assembly supervisor, Gracia was responsible for
product output and quality, for scheduling personnel and for
directing team members in their work, among other things.
Team members on the assembly line connected electronic
components to circuits boards according to the customers'
requirements. Solder, the material used to attach components
to circuit boards, may be made with lead or without lead. In
some instances, customers requested that a particular solder
be employed, and it was the assembly supervisor's job to
make sure that all customer requirements were met.
reported to Patrick Silverman, a production manager. In late
2007, Silverman began engaging in problematic conduct towards
Gracia. He sent her a series of emails containing graphic
photographs of partially nude women in degrading poses. In
early 2008, he sent Gracia an email with a photo of her
younger sister on which someone had superimposed an image of
a male co-worker dressed as a baby, with the caption,
"Mother, milk please, " in Spanish. Gracia testified
that the unwelcome pictures made her feel embarrassed,
uncomfortable and upset. But she did not object to Silverman
when he sent the photos and did not inform the company's
human resources department because Silverman was her boss.
Gracia had noticed that Silverman and the company's
executive vice-president, Greg Fairhead, were good friends,
and she feared she would lose her job. Greg Fairhead is
the brother of Gary Fairhead, the CEO of SigmaTron.
mid-2008, Silverman started writing Gracia up for tardiness.
Gracia did not deny that she had been late on multiple
occasions, sometimes as little as a minute and at times for
longer intervals. But Silverman had not previously objected
to her schedule and prior to mid-2008, Gracia's
attendance record had been described by Silverman as
"excellent." One evening in the fall of 2008,
Gracia received a series of late night calls at home from
Silverman. He asked her to join him at a party with David
Niemi, a man who had previously worked at SigmaTron. She
declined the invitation. On October 15, a few weeks after she
declined Silverman's late-night party invitation, several
months after receiving the explicit emails, and after years
of being an exemplary employee, Gracia was suspended for two
days for tardiness. When she returned to work after the
suspension, she requested a meeting with SigmaTron's
corporate human resources manager, Sandra Miedema.
October 20 meeting, Gracia told Miedema for the first time
about the late-night phone calls from Silverman and that
Silverman had been treating her differently. She explained
that he had begun writing her up for tardiness even though
her timeliness had not been an issue before. Miedema noticed
that Gracia's appearance had deteriorated since she had
seen her last, that she looked dull and lacked luster. Even
her clothing, jewelry and makeup had changed. Four days
later, Miedema called Gracia in for a second meeting. Gracia
again discussed the late-night phone calls and told Miedema
that Silverman had been treating her differently and that he
was sexually harassing her. Miedema asked Gracia, "Is he
sweet on you?" and Gracia replied, "Yes."
Miedema also asked Gracia if she was on drugs. Gracia denied
that she was taking drugs and offered to undergo drug
testing. Miedema then dropped the subject.
end of that second meeting, Miedema bypassed her own
supervisor and brought Gracia to the office of Greg Fairhead,
SigmaTron's executive vice-president. Miedema said that
she did not like the idea of Silverman "pushing at
Maria." Gracia repeated to Fairhead that Silverman had
subjected her to multiple unwanted late-night phone calls at
home. Fairhead replied that Silverman had called her only
once. Gracia tried to tell Miedema and Fairhead more about
Silverman's inappropriate conduct but Fairhead spoke over
her and gave her no chance to interject. After a break in the
meeting, during which Miedema and Fairhead spoke privately to
Silverman, Gracia was brought back in to speak with Miedema,
Silverman and Fairhead. Ultimately, Gracia was told to shake
hands with Silverman and work together.
with the company's response to her claim of sexual
harassment, Gracia filed a charge with the Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), alleging sex and
national origin discrimination. SigmaTron received a copy of
the EEOC charge on November 19, 2008. Approximately two weeks
later, on December 4, Silverman purportedly told Fairhead
that he had received a report from Eduardo Trujillo, another
SigmaTron supervisor, that Gracia had allowed an employee to
use the wrong solder on a customer's order, using
unleaded solder on a board that called for solder with lead.
Silverman claimed that when Trujillo pointed out the problem
to Gracia, she had not taken the matter seriously. Silverman
asserted that when Trujillo told him about the problem, he
(Silverman) went to the production floor, segregated the
contaminated product and took care of the problem. After
Silverman conveyed this purported sequence of events to
Fairhead, Trujillo confirmed Silverman's story to
Fairhead. The next day, approximately six weeks after
Gracia's first complaint to Miedema about Silverman's
sexual harassment and two weeks after the company received
Gracia's EEOC charge, SigmaTron terminated Gracia's
trial, however, Trujillo, a SigmaTron supervisor, denied
making any report to Silverman about Gracia or employees on
her assembly line, and did not recall Gracia speaking to him
about the soldering incident. Instead, Trujillo testified
that he was called into Fairhead's office on December 5
and asked "about the wrongdoing of boards being
soldered." He responded to Fairhead that he "was
aware, as well as the whole group of inspectors."
According to Trujillo, employees often used the wrong solder
on circuit boards at SigmaTron, and that to the best of his
knowledge, no one had ever been fired because of the
inadvertent use of the incorrect solder on a circuit board.
Trujillo also testified that, approximately one month before
Gracia was fired, Silverman advised Trujillo to stay away
from Gracia because he (Silverman) was "throwing bombs
testified that, on December 4, Trujillo brought to her
attention that an employee was using the wrong solder, and
that she addressed the problem immediately and appropriately.
She removed the products from the employee applying the wrong
solder and delivered them to the correct area. She also
determined which employee had made the mistake, a group
leader who accepted responsibility. According to Gracia,
Silverman never came to the production floor and was not
involved in rectifying the problem. As we discuss below,
because Gracia prevailed at trial on her retaliation claim,
we credit the version of the facts that support the
jury's verdict. The jury was free to believe Gracia and
Trujillo, and correspondingly free to determine that
Silverman and Fairhead had lied about the
response to the retaliation claim, SigmaTron asserted at
trial that the company terminated Gracia's employment
because she had allowed an assembly line worker to use the
wrong solder, did not resolve the problem and did not take
the matter seriously. As for the harassment claim, the
company argued that Silverman's alleged conduct did not
meet the standard for hostile work environment, that Gracia
had little evidence corroborating her claims, and that Gracia
did not avail herself of the company's sexual harassment
policy because she never informed her employer that Silverman
had done anything other than invite her to a party and treat
her differently by writing her up for tardiness. The jury
found in favor of SigmaTron on the sexual harassment claim
and in favor of Gracia on the retaliation claim. The jury
awarded Gracia $57, 000 in compensatory damages and $250, 000
in punitive damages. SigmaTron appeals.
appeal, SigmaTron contends that it is entitled to judgment as
a matter of law on the retaliation claim because the evidence
was insufficient to support the jury's verdict. SigmaTron
also maintains that the compensatory and punitive damages
awards are unsupported by the evidence, and that the punitive
damages are both disproportionate to the harm suffered by
Gracia and out of line with ...