The story of two Title VII trials won by plaintiffs. In the Seventh Circuit, the court affirms a housekeeper’s judgment ($15,000 compensatory/$50,000 punitive) in a retaliation case against her former employer, over myriad objections to the trial and to the sufficiency of the evidence. In the First Circuit, a seven-figure verdict in a Title VII and state-law harassment and discrimination case disappears in a post-trial judgment as a matter of law, upheld on appeal.
Pickett v. Sheridan Health Care Center, No. 09-3028 (7th Cir. June 25, 2010): The plaintiff, who worked in a nursing home in Zion, Illinois, complained to her employer that the residents made lewd comments when she cleaned their rooms, and in one instance a resident cornered and groped her. Meetings followed to work out the problem, but the results were dissatisfying, . . . as for instance, the nursing home refused to remove one of the offending residents. These discussions culminated, as the jury could have found, in a rather threatening situation between the plaintiff and the Administrator (named Zeller):
“Appellee and Zeller continued this discussion in Zeller’s office, where Pickett stated that she was not satisfied with the remedial measures implemented by Sheridan in response to the June 24 incident and its precursors. Zeller and Pickett provided conflicting testimony about what was said during the meeting, but both agree that Pickett complained that the assailant from June 24 was still in the facility despite [supervisor] Paynter’s promise to remove him. At some point, Pickett told Zeller: ‘You’re treating this like a store where the customer is always right. This is not right.’ According to Pickett, Zeller responded ‘maybe you should go and clean some stores.’ Zeller denies saying this. Pickett also testified that Zeller said: ‘[T]his [Sheridan] is their home. I mean nothing is going to change,’ though Zeller could not recall at trial whether he actually made the last remark. Pickett then became upset and began to cry because she feared that her job was in jeopardy. She told Zeller that her children were depending on her and that she did not want to lose her job.”
Pickett left the workplace upset. Upon her returning the next day, Zeller told Pickett in separate conversations that she “did walk off the job,” and that “it was best she part ways with the company.” The jury found that Pickett was terminated in retaliation for complaining about the alleged sex harassment by the residents.
The Seventh Circuit affirms, and makes the following holdings:
1. That it was unnecessary for the employee to establish the employer’s liability for harassment in order to prove a claim of retaliation.
2. “The case came down to a choice between trusting Zeller or Pickett. If the jury favored Zeller’s version of the events, it would have found that Pickett walked out on her job in violation of written policy after an entirely neutral conversation with her boss. As such, Sheridan would not be liable under Title VII because it fired the appellee for breaking the rules, not for protected expression. The trier of fact here chose to go the other way, but the this choice too was supported by the weight of the evidence. The jurors were entitled to believe Pickett’s testimony.”
3. “[T]he statement [in closing argument] ‘you’ve got to send some message to this employer that they shouldn’t do this kind of thing again'” was “not prejudicial; Title VII, a statute designed to prevent retaliatory firings, allows plaintiffs to recover damages precisely to deter employers from repeating infractions in the future.”
4. “Sheridan’s position that Pickett could not have established emotional distress without corroborating evidence from a third party finds no support in our precedent. . . . Pickett testified that she was very upset by how Sheridan treated her, felt embarrassed talking to her children, and nearly became homeless as a result of her discharge. This evidence is enough to support a jury award of $15,000, which is well within the $200,000 cap set out in 42 U.S.C. § 1981a(b)(3)(C) and the benchmarks set out by other improper termination cases.”
5. Affirming the punitive damage award, the panel rejects an argument that the court “extend Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, 128 S. Ct. 2605 (2008), to mandate a one-to-one ratio between compensatory and punitive damages in this case. The logic of Baker does not apply to this Title VII case.”
Malone v. Lockheed Martin Corp., No. 09-2060 (1st Cir. June 25, 2010): As the panel summarized, “a jury had entered a verdict and award in favor of Malone and against defendants appellees Lockheed Martin Corporation and Carl Supancic. The jury found the defendants guilty of employment discrimination based on race, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., the Rhode Island Fair Employment Practices Act (RIFEPA), R.I. Gen. Laws § 28-5-1 et seq., and the Rhode Island Civil Rights Act of 1990 (RICRA), R.I. Gen. Laws § 42-112-1 et seq.; as well as retaliation based on Malone’s alleged whistleblowing activities, in violation of the Rhode Island Whistleblowers’ Protection Act (RIWPA), R.I. Gen. Laws § 28-50-1 et seq. The jury entered an award of $2 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
Nevertheless, the district court granted post-trial judgment as a matter of law, holding that the claims were untimely. The First Circuit affirms in a brief decision, substantially adopting the analysis of the district court. “The district court correctly determined that only two discrete acts of alleged discrimination occurred within the statute of limitations for purposes of claims made under Title VII and the state statutes. These two events were: (1) an ‘Updated Final Warning’ regarding Malone’s attendance issues that was issued by Malone’s subsequent supervisor, Higson; and (2) a performance review that rated Malone as a ‘Basic Contributor’ that was likewise issued by Higson. There was no claim that Higson himself took these actions based on racial animus, only an assertion that Higson fell under [site manager] Supancic’s influence.” Furthermore, Malone supposedly “offered no evidence that the acts that fell outside the limitations periods (including Supancic’s reprimands, performance reviews, and eventual demotion of Malone) were motivated at least in part by racial animus. As discussed above, Malone submitted no evidence suggesting any racial motivation for Supancic’s response to Malone’s continued and severe absenteeism problem. The district court considered and dismissed the probative value of this background evidence, as do we.”