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Sanders v. Lee County school Dist. No. 1, No. 10-3240 (8th Cir. Feb. 28, 2012); Sisk v. Picture People, Inc., No. 10-3398 (8th Cir. Feb. 28, 2012)

Here's two decisions from the Eighth Circuit coming off Rule 50 orders granting judgment as a matter of law to employers. In the first, the court reverses, holding that There was sufficient evidence for a jury to find that an employee was constructively discharged by being knocked down from a title as finance coordinator to the board to a job in food service. In the second, an FMLA retaliation case, the plaintiff does not prevail -- but the court says something very important about proof at trial.

Sanders v. Lee County school Dist. No. 1, No. 10-3240 (8th Cir. Feb. 28, 2012): The employee in this case was a white employee of the school board who presented financial reports at its monthly meetings. The elected board had a change of composition after an election, going from majority white to majority African-American. Thereafter, the only two white employees of the board were replaced by African-Americans. Sanders was reassigned to the position of food services assistant. The Board did not consult its own procedures, the school superintendent or board counsel in making these decisions.

The employee took sick leave after her demotion, but continued to correspond with the board about her employment. "Sanders repeatedly asked the Board to provide her with a job description defining the duties of her new position, and a new contract. For several months, the Board did not provide Sanders with a new contract or a job description defining the duties of her new position." Indeed, the board moved to eliminate the job formally, but ultimately did not vote to do so. Eventually Sanders resigned, having never received satisfaction on her requests and under threat of termination by the board for overstaying sick leave.

The jury awarded a verdict to Sanders for race discrimination, deciding that:

"Sanders had suffered an adverse employment action when she was demoted from finance coordinator to food services assistant, and the adverse employment action was based on race. The jury awarded $10,000 in compensatory damages for the emotional distress and anguish arising from the race discrimination claim. The jury also determined Sanders had been constructively discharged on the basis of race, and awarded her $60,825 for lost wages and benefits. Finally, the jury found Sanders was entitled to $5,000 in punitive damages against individual school board member Elizabeth Johnson, $2,500 in punitive damages against individual school board member Milton Hall, and $500 in punitive damages against individual school board member Victoria Perry."

Post-trial, the district court upheld the discrimination verdict but overruled the constructive discharge finding and the punitive damages.

The Eighth Circuit reverses. Most significantly, it finds that the jury could have found that the demotion alone constituted constructive discharge:

"Here, a reasonable jury could conclude the change in position from finance coordinator to food services assistant was a demotion with a diminution in title and significantly decreased responsibilities, and that a reasonable employee in Sanders's position would find the reassignment demeaning. Furthermore, '[c]onstructive discharge through placement in a job that is 'intolerable' may be shown by a deliberate placement in a job for which one is not qualified and that one is unable to perform, regardless of whether the environment is intolerably abusive or oppressive.'" [Quoting Green v. Harvard Vanguard Med. Assocs., Inc., 944 N.E.2d 184, 195 n.10 (Mass. App. Ct. 2011)]

The panel holds that the employee continued to ask (unsuccessfully) for a job description bolstered the finding of constructive discharge; a jury could infer form such facts that

The court also remands the case for retrial on punitive damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1981a(b)(1), adopting the rule of the Third Circuit (Alexander v. Riga, 208 F.3d 419, 432 (3d Cir. 2000)) that deliberate racial discrimination so obviously violates federal law that the burden is on the employer to establish actual ignorance of the law.

"There was strong evidence the individual school board members discriminated against Sanders on the basis of race. The jury rejected the Board's evidence that they reassigned Sanders because of insubordination, leaving no There motivation for the demotion except for the color of Sanders's skin. That evidence, coupled with the Board members' failure to consult with the superintendent, legal counsel, or the school district's employee manuals before taking adverse action against Sanders, seems to be sufficient evidence the school board members acted with callous indifference to whether their actions violated federal law."

Along with a mandate to retry the punitive damage claims under this legal standard, the court also remands the attorney's fees to the district court for recalculation based on Sanders' success on appeal and possible success on a new trial.

Sisk v. Picture People, Inc., No. 10-3398 (8th Cir. Feb. 28, 2012):  The bottom line on this appeal was the Eighth Circuit affirms entry of judgment as a matter of law, holding that the employee at trial failed to establish a causal link between her request for FMLA leave and termination two months later.

But in the course of so holding, the panel reminds us of an important point about the Burdine and McDonnell Douglas shifting-burdens associated with the adjudication of most employment discrimination cases. Where an employee lays the foundation of their case with prima facie evidence of discrimination, under whatever the legal standard might be, the employer has the burden to produce admissible evidence of a legitimate, non-discriminatory (or non-retaliatory) reason for its decision. In this case, by the time plaintiff rested at trial, the employer had not proffered evidence of such a reason.

When the employer fails to proffer a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason, the result may be entry of judgment for the employee. Holds the court: "Until a defendant articulates a non-discriminatory reason for the alleged adverse employment action, the relevant inquiry is the sufficiency of the plaintiff's prima facie case. Assuming a defendant does not articulate a reason for its alleged act, three scenarios are possible: First, if the court determines that no reasonable jury can find facts constituting a prima facie case, the defendant prevails as a matter of law. See, e.g., Quinn v. St. Louis Cnty., 653 F.3d 745, 754 (8th Cir. 2011). Second, if the court determines that a reasonable jury must find that the plaintiff has established a prima facie case, the plaintiff prevails as a matter of law. See St. Mary's Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 509 (1993). Third, if "reasonable minds could differ as to whether a preponderance of the evidence establishes the facts of a prima facie case, then a question of fact . . . remain[s], which the trier of fact will be called upon to answer.' Id. at 510-11 (emphasis omitted)." [Emphasis in original.]

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