Former New York Prison Guard Awarded Nearly $1 Million in Sexual Harassment Suit

A former New York state prison guard received judgments totalling nearly $1 million in her sexual harassment suit against the state. A jury awarded her $650,000 in March 2012, and the judge awarded attorney’s fees and other costs of nearly $300,000 several months later. Collins v. New York, No. 5:07-cv-0493, mem. decision (N.D.N.Y., Oct. 2, 2012). In addition to sexual harassment, the lawsuit alleged gender discrimination based on a training handbook distributed only to female corrections officers.

The plaintiff, Penny Collins, worked as a prison guard for the New York State Department of Correctional Services (NYSDCS) from 2002 to 2007 During that time, she worked at Sing Sing, Sullivan, Auburn, and Eastern prisons. At the time she filed suit in 2007, Collins was one of just over two thousand women employed as corrections officers in New York, compared to almost twenty thousand men. She alleged that male guards subjected her to sexual harassment by using profanity and speaking openly to her about their genitals and sexual activity, by groping her, and by spreading false rumors that she was sexually involved with male guards. She claimed that she reported these matters to her superiors, but that they took no action in response. She alleged that she developed a medical disability and had to leave the department in 2007.

A training manual used by the NYSDCS for about twenty years, “Orientation Handbook for Female Staff Working in an Institutional Setting,” was also the subject of discrimination claims in Collins’ lawsuit. The manual, which was only provided to female employees, reportedly placed the burden on female employees to avoid situations that might lead to sexual harassment or worse, without placing similar limitations on men’s behavior. It referenced gossip and jealousy as problems among female employees, and advised women to “eliminate flirtatious mannerisms while on the job.” The department reportedly stopped using the manual in 2007, after Collins’ suit brought it media attention. According to a NYSDCS spokesperson, corrections officials wrote the manual in the 1980’s in order to address specific situations that had occurred that the department believed were unique to female officers. Women first began working for the department as corrections officers in 1973.

A jury awarded Collins $500,000 in compensatory damages on March 22, 2012, as well as $150,000 in lost wages due to her inability to work. She did not receive an award of punitive damages. In June 2012, the court denied a motion by the state to dismiss Collins’ claims under the New York Human Rights Law and to reduce the amount of compensatory damages to $300,000. The state had argued that the U.S. District Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to hear the state law claim under the Eleventh Amendment. The court found that New York law waives Eleventh Amendment immunity when a claimant has followed certain administrative procedures, which it found Collins had done. Since it ruled that it had subject matter jurisdiction over the state law claim, the court also ruled that no grounds existed to alter the damage award. In October 2012, the court granted the plaintiff’s motion for attorney’s fees, awarding her a total of $288,000 in attorney, paralegal, and expert fees.

The lawyers at Phillips & Associates represent victims of workplace sexual harassment and discrimination in New York City and surrounding areas, fighting to protect their rights at the municipal, state, and federal levels. To schedule a free and confidential consultation, contact us today online or at (866) 229-9441.

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