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Campbell-Crane & Associates, Inc., et al v. Sasha Stamenkovic

May 31, 2012


Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CAB-3597-05) (Hon. Odessa F. Vincent, Trial Judge)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ruiz, Associate Judge,

Argued March 25, 2010

Before GLICKMAN, Associate Judge, RUIZ, Associate Judge, Retired,*fn1 and REID, Senior Judge.*fn2

Retired: This appeal stems from an employment discrimination suit initiated by Sasha Stamenkovic, who was employed at Campbell-Crane & Associates, Inc. ("Campbell-Crane"), and claimed to have been sexually harassed for three years by Campbell-Crane's owner, Jeanne M. Campbell. Campbell and Campbell-Crane appeal the jury's verdict in favor of Stamenkovic on the sexual harassment claim as well as the award of $812,000 in compensatory damages and $455.739.50 in attorneys' fees and costs. Appellants argue that the trial court made instructional and evidentiary errors during trial, and that, post-trial, the court erred in denying their motion for judgment as a matter of law or for new trial challenging the jury's verdict on compensatory damages, and abused discretion in awarding attorneys' fees. Although we agree with appellants on one of these claims, that the instruction of what constitutes a "hostile" work environment was incomplete, we conclude the error was harmless. Therefore, we affirm the judgment.

I. Statement of Facts

Appellee, Sasha Stamenkovic, filed suit against Campbell-Crane and Campbell (hereinafter sometimes referred to collectively as "Campbell-Crane" or "appellants"). Stamenkovic asserted two claims under the District of Columbia Human Rights Act ("DCHRA"), D.C. Code §§ 2-1402.01 et seq. (2001), for a hostile work environment based on sexual harassment and for retaliation, as well as a claim under the District of Columbia Wage Payment Act, D.C. Code §§ 32-1301 et seq. (2001). After a six-day trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Stamenkovic on all claims, and awarded him $800,000 in compensatory damages for the hostile work environment claim, and $12,000 for his retaliation claim.*fn3 Following the trial, appellants filed a timely motion for judgment as a matter of law or for a new trial. In a brief order, the trial court denied appellants' motion without a hearing. This appeal ensued. After this appeal was filed, the trial court awarded appellee $455,739.50 in attorneys' fees and costs, which appellants also appealed. We consolidated both appeals.

1. Hostile Work Environment

Sasha Stamenkovic's evidence at trial

Stamenkovic, a 26-year-old immigrant from Serbia, testified at trial that he met the 69-year-old Campbell at the Washington Sports Club where he worked as a personal trainer for her and other clients. Without checking any references, consulting her colleagues, or asking appellee about his related work experience, Campbell offered Stamenkovic the position of Vice President of International and Corporate Development and Meeting Manager. Campbell also became Stamenkovic's sponsor for his H1-B work visa and his application for immigration ("green card").

According to Stamenkovic, Campbell did not make a distinction between the workplace and party-time, and immediately and repeatedly harassed him with sexual propositions and innuendo. Among the many examples Stamenkovic recounted, he testified that Campbell swam nude in her pool while the firm's employees were in attendance, and made sexually explicit comments about a former lover, about Stamenkovic, and even about his bulldog, whom she described as having "huge balls." On more than one occasion, Campbell told Stamenkovic in detail about her prior sexual experiences; once she demonstrated to Stamenkovic "with her hands . . . how big [a former lover's] organ [wa]s" and that their sex was enhanced with marijuana. Campbell invited Stamenkovic to sleep with her and asked him to obtain marijuana. In one of their trips together, Campbell told him that she wanted him in her room for "rough sex." On another occasion, Campbell urged oral sex, arguing with Stamenkovic that it was not a sexual act; she touched herself and made moaning noises. Stamenkovic testified about a number of other instances where Campbell in subtle and not-so-subtle ways made sexual advances and, increasingly, demands. Stamenkovic rebuffed Campbell's sexual advances.

Stamenkovic testified that Campbell also tried to control his personal life and relationships. For example, when they went to local restaurants and clubs, Campbell acted as though they were a "couple," and she made it clear to Stamenkovic that she did not want him with other women. On one occasion, when appellee showed up with a date, Campbell got upset, called his date a "slut," and ordered him to leave the event with her. Stamenkovic described at least three other instances where Campbell insulted him or his date and made it clear that she did not want him to see other women. According to Stamenkovic, she would check his cell phone and was angry when she found that he had called other women. On a trip to Ireland, Campbell said in no uncertain terms, "you are my boy, you cannot do things like that . . . you cannot be with anybody else" when she found out that Stamenkovic had "escorted" Heather Hamby (a woman they had met in Ireland) "to her hotel room" after they had all been socializing at a hotel and another club together.

Stamenkovic introduced several emails. One of them was from Campbell to Hamby, sent in October of 2004, in which Campbell stated her view of Stamenkovic vis-a-vis two other men:

Dan [Crane] is my business partner for 10 years and kind of my man. Mark's the new guy, a rocket scientist with a pony tail and Mr. Little Giant, and I adore them both. But Mark lives in Alabama so I don't see him often. . . . Sasha [Stamenkovic] is the Arm Candy. More boy than toy . . . Are you having fun with the contractors re-doing the condo? Did you say condo or condom? Love ya, Beautiful. JC In an email sent to Stamenkovic on September 24, 2004, Campbell said:

Last time at the pool you danced with a lot of girls. I don't think you respect me as much as you did, so I think you can dance with me at this party. You are getting to be mature and have more wisdom - like the wisdom to dance with GCG - GreenCardGirl. Will see just how much of a smarty pants you really are. Is this place close enough so I won't have to drive? Dgetting browy on 1 percoset, 1 ambien. Yawn. . . jc In a third email, this one from Stamenkovic to Campbell, dated May 5, 2005, he stated, among other things, that "you know that I want no more sexual demands, but I must work."

Stamenkovic testified that from the moment when Campbell first propositioned him at her home during his first month of employment at Campbell-Crane, Campbell's sexual comments and conduct made him "more and more agitated, more and more nervous . . . [and] very uncomfortable." His immigrant status made him vulnerable, and he felt pressured to stay at Campbell-Crane. During his three years at the firm, Campbell caused him stress when she confronted him every time they got into an argument. He testified that he was fatigued and, at one point, became very sick. Campbell also embarrassed him repeatedly in front of his co-workers,*fn4 and his dates. Stamenkovic became "more and more irritated, more and more angry. [His] stomach started hurting more and more. [He] was getting more and more depressed." He also testified that he lost weight, could not sleep, and was irritable. For some time, he lost interest in having sexual relations with women. He was so depressed that in August of 2005 he decided not to marry his fiancee at that time (although he did marry her several years later).

Stamenkovic began treatment with Dr. William Lawson, Chair of Howard University's Department of Psychiatry, on August 8, 2005, three months after he filed suit. Dr. Lawson testified that he had seen Stamenkovic ten to twelve times between August of 2005 and the time of trial, in June of 2008. Dr. Lawson had initially diagnosed Stamenkovic with a "despondent disorder," but over time came to believe that he suffered from major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"). He treated Stamenkovic with medication and cognitive psychotherapy. Dr. Lawson explained that appellee had an "intense fear" that Campbell-Crane would ensure that "he never worked anywhere else" and he felt "helplessness or horror" because he thought "that he was at a significant risk of being deported." Dr. Lawson testified that Stamenkovic complained that Campbell "was making sexual demands on him and that if he didn't comply with her demands that there was a possibility that he might be deported." Further, Dr. Lawson testified, Stamenkovic was "concerned about his self-perception as a man, that he would loose (sic) his sexual identity, sexual virility, because of the [sexual harassment]" by Campbell.

Campbell-Crane's evidence at trial

Jeanne M. Campbell testified that she began her career as a lobbyist and, over the years, built a successful lobbying firm that came to be known as Campbell-Crane & Associates, Inc. She confirmed that she met Stamenkovic at the gym, but gave a different account of how she came to employ him and of their working relationship at the firm. During the personal training sessions, Stamenkovic informed Campbell that he had a degree in business management from a prominent Serbian university, a management background in the hotel industry, and spoke several languages. He told her that he was in the United States on a work visa, which required him to maintain a sponsor. Six months later, in March of 2002, Campbell hired Stamenkovic as Campbell-Crane's Director of Meeting Management and Vice President for International and Corporate Development, and became his sponsor for immigration purposes. Stamenkovic's primary responsibility was to coordinate logistics for the numerous events that the firm arranged for Campbell-Crane's clients.

Campbell testified that Campbell-Crane had a small staff, and its employees were close and would often socialize with one another on weekends. During the three years Stamenkovic was at the firm, he joined, and often coordinated, many after-hours entertainment events at restaurants and local night clubs for his employer. He also accompanied Campbell on trips to New York, Florida, and abroad. During a trip to Ireland, he referred to Campbell as his "green card girl," as the trip to Ireland was necessary for his visa. Campbell denied all of Stamenkovic's allegations that she sexually harassed him.

Toward the end of 2004, Stamenkovic told Campbell that he was engaged in some side real estate endeavors, and that he was attempting to purchase a number of condominium units. Campbell raised Stamenkovic's salary to $45,034 after he informed her he could not qualify for refinancing because his income was too low.

According to Campbell, she and Stamenkovic had two fights, both due to his being late to pick her up for work. On the first of these occasions, Stamenkovic stormed off, announcing that he quit his job. After he apologized and sent Campbell an email, she allowed him to continue working for her. After the second incident, Stamenkovic returned to work, but he hired an attorney and filed the underlying sexual harassment suit. Although Campbell was informed of the lawsuit filed against her and the firm, she did not terminate Stamenkovic's employment until she learned at her deposition in this matter that he had tape-recorded a conversation they had had on May 12, 2005. After the close of discovery, Campbell found evidence in the firm's computer system that Stamenkovic had been operating an illegal gambling operation from the offices of Campbell-Crane during the entire time he worked there.

Several of the firm's employees - Linnsey Workman, William Marthaller, Tibor Bartalos, Rick Murphy, and Hali Jilani - testified at trial. They had varying degrees of personal and professional connections with Campbell and Stamenkovic; all testified that they never saw or heard any indications that Campbell sexually harassed Stamenkovic. He never complained to his colleagues regarding any inappropriate advances made by Campbell.

Workman, who worked closely with Stamenkovic, testified that Stamenkovic would get frustrated when Campbell criticized his work, but she stated that this criticism did not relate to any sexual harassment. Bartalos, Murphy, and Jilani described the work atmosphere at Campbell-Crane as "positive" (Bartalos), "relaxed" (Murphy), and "very pleasant" (Jilani).

2. Retaliation Claim

Stamenkovic filed an amended complaint on August 24, 2005, alleging Campbell fired him in retaliation for filing his original complaint in this case. The retaliation claim alleged that on May 12, 2005, the day after Stamenkovic filed the underlying suit and a copy was delivered to Campbell's office, he attended a meeting with Campbell at her office; Hali Jilani, and "Pete," a temporary employee, also sat in at the meeting. Stamenkovic testified that, at the meeting, Campbell explained that she needed him to work, and that she was "shocked" when she had been told as she came to work that morning of Stamenkovic's lawsuit for sexual harassment. Campbell called her attorney, and after receiving advice, asked Stamenkovic, "Well, do you think it is appropriate to [work] here?" to which he answered, "You are the boss." Stamenkovic never returned to work. Campbell testified that Stamenkovic was "invited" to return to work, but never did so. She also testified that she did not fire Stamenkovic because he had filed suit, but because, unbeknownst to her, he had tape- recorded their conversation on May 12, 2005.

II. Jury Instructions

A."Hostile" Work ...

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