Federal Jury Awards $500,000 to Female Employee Passed Over for Promotion

Author: Emily Scace, XpertHR Legal Editor

August 12, 2021

A federal jury in Florida has awarded $500,000 in punitive damages for sex discrimination to a female sales manager at a Harley-Davidson dealership, Virginia Duncan, who was allegedly denied promotion to a general manager role because of her gender.

After hearing evidence that management at Cigar City Motors had never promoted a female employee to general manager, the jury returned a unanimous verdict, holding that the employer's actions were motivated by gender bias.

In particular, Duncan was repeatedly passed over for promotions that were awarded to male employees despite being equally or more qualified than the male candidates. The employer also required her to participate in a mentorship program in order to be eligible for promotion - a requirement that male job candidates did not need to fulfill.

A company manager with influence over promotion decisions at the dealership made remarks at various times to the effect that "a woman should not be in that role," according to deposition testimony of the male employee who was ultimately chosen for a promotion over Duncan. In the order denying summary judgment in the case, the court found those statements to constitute direct evidence of discrimination.

In an EEOC statement announcing the jury verdict, the regional attorney of the EEOC's Miami District Office, Robert E. Weisberg, urged the automotive industry to see the verdict as "a wake-up call… that they are not exempt from federal laws which make workplace sex discrimination unlawful." He continued, "It's time for the 'good old boy' method of selecting general managers… to be retired."

"Employers that do not have female leadership should take a strong look at their promotion practices and ask themselves whether gender bias is playing a role in advancement opportunities," the EEOC's Tampa field office director, Evangeline Hawthorne, advised.

Because punitive damages are capped at $300,000 in such cases, the jury award likely will be reduced. However, the employer may still be liable for back pay, attorney fees and other costs.