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A Manhattan judge Tuesday refused to vacate a $5.2 million verdict against a modeling agency, rejecting claims that it was unsupported and possibly tainted by an attempt at jury tampering. In a written ruling, New York Supreme Court Justice Louis B. York said the verdict, won by Victoria Gallegos, a former employee of Elite Model Management, was excessive but warranted by the evidence at trial. He reduced the compensatory damage award to $1.1 million, down from $2 million, but left intact a punitive damages award of $2.6 million. Gallegos also won $670,000 in lost wages for a total of $4.3 million. Gallegos, who was fired from Elite after working there for six weeks as a sales director with a six-figure salary, claimed she was retaliated against after she complained that fellow employees persistently smoked cigarettes in the office. The smoke, she said, aggravated her asthma and caused her to cough up blood. After a two-part trial last summer lasting nine weeks, a jury awarded Gallegos $5.2 million, including $2.6 million in punitive damages. Elite moved to vacate or substantially reduce the award, but Justice York on Tuesday denied the agency’s request. “The defendants do not seriously question that they failed to accommodate plaintiff’s disability,” the judge wrote in Gallegos v. Elite Model Mgmt. Corp. “At one point, they weakly responded that they did not know that they were violating state and city Human Rights Laws. However, [John Casablancas], the president of defendant Elite, admitted that he knew he had a responsibility to accommodate her asthma. The record reveals that he made a few feeble efforts to do so, but afterwards basically gave up.” Justice York also dismissed arguments that it was improper for him to empanel two alternate jurors after two jurors were dismissed from the case. When the jury began deliberations after the damages phase of the trial, York sent the alternate jurors home but asked them to remain on call. After a day of deliberations, it was revealed that one juror allegedly spoke to a named defendant from Elite in the women’s restroom. She told another juror about the incident, and that juror reported it to the judge. Both jurors were dismissed. York then recalled two alternates who were no longer in the courtroom, a rare occurrence for a civil court proceeding in New York. “Although the Court expressed some doubts about whether the alternates could be substituted after deliberations had gotten underway, both jurors repeatedly gave assurances that they had not imparted any of this information to any of the other jurors,” Justice York wrote. He added: “No one stated an objection so I decided to recall the two alternates. I then instructed the jury to disregard everything that had transpired during their previously short deliberation. They were to start from scratch and to treat every matter raised as if being raised for the first time. During all of this, defendants’ counsel raised no objection.”

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