The high-end gym franchise was ordered to pay Röbynn Europe, a former employee, damages of $11.25 million.
Between 2018 and 2019, Röbynn Europe, a former professional body builder, worked at an Equinox on the Upper East Side, where she managed personal trainers. Years earlier, as a scholarship student at Brearley, the girls’ school several blocks away, where she began in seventh grade, commuting first from Canarsie and then Coney Island, she had experienced the coded bias of privileged teenagers. There was only one other Black student in her class. But still that had not prepared her for what she described as crass, unfiltered expressions of prejudice from male colleagues in an expensive gym, awash with the scent of eucalyptus oil if not the base notes of enlightenment.
Ms. Europe’s tenure at the club was short-lived; Equinox terminated her employment in less than a year because, the company said, she was late 47 times in the course of 10 months. Ms. Europe held a different view of her firing, believing that her lateness was merely a pretext for discrimination, and soon after she filed a lawsuit in Manhattan federal court, arguing that she had been subjected to a hostile work environment and eventually let go because of her race and gender. Last week, a predominantly white jury of five women and three men agreed, delivering a verdict in little over an hour. The next day they awarded her $11.25 million in damages.
The swiftness of the jury’s decision and the size of the payout — $10 million in punitive damages and $1.25 million for the distress she suffered — follow a pattern similar to the verdict reached in the same courthouse just a few weeks before, in E. Jean Carroll’s defamation suit against Donald J. Trump. In both instances, the process and outcome suggest the ways in which recent transformative social movements around race and gender might reframe the way that juries think about the long shadow of emotional disruption that bigotry or sexual violence can produce.
Ms. Europe, who had been an art student at Oberlin College, was an unlikely entry into the fitness world. Returning to New York after graduation, she took an office job at the David Barton Gym, where she worked to support herself through a tattooing apprenticeship. In 2006, she received her certification as a personal trainer. “Racism and sexism — they are just pervasive in the fitness industry,” she said when I met her at her lawyer’s office in Brooklyn recently.
“In coastal cities, training is something you can do without a degree and you can make $75 an hour — there are not a lot of opportunities to do that, so it’s a big draw for people of color.” But the management structure, she observed, is often white and male.
In response to the verdict, Equinox did not engage in the current fashion for self-reproach and vows to do better. Instead, it issued a statement saying that it “vehemently disagreed” with the finding and did not “tolerate discrimination in any form.” In the motion it filed asking the court to reconsider the case, either by way of a new trial or a reduction in the award, lawyers maintained that the jurors, “guided by sympathy and emotion,” had “erroneously” bought into the plaintiff’s claim that she had been the victim of racial animus and “issued extreme, unconscionable damages” as a result.
The case revolved in large part around allegations that a manager who reported to Ms. Europe, a middle-aged white man whom she described as insulated by his relationships with people above her, refused to accept her as his supervisor. She claimed that he repeatedly delivered his vulgar takes on Black female bodies, referred to nonwhite employees as “lazy” and expressed the hope that he could get them fired; he called one Black co-worker “autistic.”
In the early spring of 2019, the suit claimed, he “demanded” that his boss wait outside the gym with him for a young Black woman to leave a cafe where she worked so he could make a pass at her, on the theory that he would be better positioned with a Black person standing next to him. Ms. Europe, according to the complaint, “refused to be a racial pawn.”
The accumulation of these incidents, she testified, made her time at Equinox so stressful that the bulimia she struggled with for much of her life worsened. While working there, Ms. Europe told me, her condition was bad enough that she began vomiting several times a day and started to throw up blood; she eventually had to enter a treatment program for eating disorders. Her lawyers, all of them women at Crumiller, which describes itself as “a feminist litigation firm,” argued that their client’s complaints to male bosses went unheard.
On the witness stand, Ms. Europe talked about an incident that had left her feeling especially defeated. One evening in June 2019, she was in her office when she got a call from someone who dealt directly with members, a woman who was talking to a client who had specifically asked for a white trainer. Ms. Europe explained that a request like that exposed the company to liability and would need to be handled by a supervisor, whom she assumed would tell the client that what he was asking for was inappropriate.
She recounted how upset she had been over her co-worker’s willingness to relay the “request as though it would just be good customer service to fulfill it.” When she told her boss, he went ahead and let the client have a white trainer anyway.
Although he was reprimanded by a superior in writing a week later, and according to a spokesman at Equinox, fired one year after that, Ms. Europe happened to receive a second disciplinary warning for lateness on the same day that she had written an email bringing the issue to the attention of managers and people in human resources. Three months later, she was fired.
Ms. Europe never denied that she was often late for work, but her lawyers had presented jurors with a chart indicating how many other people also failed to show up on time, though, with relatively few consequences.
In their motion to have the case re-evaluated, lawyers for Equinox did not dispute that the racially and sexually charged comments made by her subordinate had occurred but argued that they were too few to support claims of a hostile workplace. Beyond that, they maintained that the emotional distress Ms. Europe suffered as a function of her time at the gym was not “egregious” enough — a legal term — to warrant the amount of money the jury recommended.
The matter of what pain is worth, in monetary terms, remains an endlessly fraught and divisive question. Judges can — and often do — overrule decisions juries make in these types of civil cases. Some legislators in New York State, for example, believe that the privilege ought to be curbed, arguing that these reversals can seem arbitrary. But the conclusions of jurors can also seem inscrutable.
And yet sometimes a remarkable harmony emerges. In November, a federal jury in Texas awarded $366 million to a Black saleswoman who had sued FedEx over discrimination in a case that was thought to deliver the largest ever verdict in litigation involving employment and racial bias. Three months later, a federal judge rejected the company’s bid to throw out the award or reduce it.
You must log in to post a comment.