The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit recently affirmed a judgment for a plaintiff in a retaliation case, but substantially reduced the size of the plaintiff’s emotional distress damages. The case is Trainor v. HEI Hospitality, LLC.

HEI Hospitality hired Lawrence Trainor in 2006, at the age of 59, to be a Senior Vice-President (“SVP”). In the fall of 2008, HEI offered Trainor a choice: remain SVP and relocate to Norwalk, Connecticut or become General Manager of a Cambridge, Massachusetts hotel, with a substantial pay cut. Trainor engaged an attorney, who wrote to HEI to complain that it was forcing this untenable choice on him because of his age. HEI later informed Trainor that it was eliminating his SVP position but that he could still accept the General Manager position. Trainor filed a charge of age discrimination with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, and his employment was terminated several hours later.

Trainor ultimately filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, claiming that HEI had discriminated against him because of his age and retaliated against him because of his complaints of age discrimination. After an eight-day trial, the jury found in HEI’s favor on the age discrimination claim, but found in Trainor’s favor on the retaliation claim. It awarded him $500,000 in back pay, $750,000 in front pay, $1,000,000 for emotional distress, and equitable relief. The District Court reduced the emotional distress damages to $500,000, and, because the jury found that HEI had knowingly violated state law, doubled the damages. It also awarded Trainor $533,553.15 in attorneys’ fees.

The Court of Appeals affirmed in all respects except as to the award of emotional distress damages, which it found “grossly excessive” even after the District Court’s reduction in light of the fact that Trainor had never sought or received any treatment or suffered any physical infirmity. The Court of Appeals concluded that the maximum recovery for emotional distress damages permitted by the evidence is $200,000.

This case presents two key reminders for employers. First, even when an employee’s discrimination claim fails, an employer can still be found liable for retaliation if a jury finds that the employee had a good faith basis for complaining about discrimination and the employer took action as a result of that complaint. Second, a claim for emotional distress damages can result in a substantial award even when an employee has not sought medial treatment or suffered physical harm.