Holland v. Gee, No. 11-11659 (11th Cir. Apr. 17, 2012)

| Apr 17, 2012 | Daily Developments in EEO Law |

The Eleventh Circuit affirms a jury verdict for the employee in a pregnancy discrimination case, and restores $80,000 in back pay damages that the district court erroneously vacated. The case goes to demonstrate that not all discrimination cases involve malice or animus – in this case, the decision appears to have been motivated by a misguided maternalism.

Holland v. Gee, No. 11-11659 (11th Cir. Apr. 17, 2012): Ms. Holland had worked for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office for three years as a computer technician before she announced her pregnancy. Within months, she was transferred to work at the “Help Desk,” described as “less technical and more administrative,” as well as categorized at a lower pay grade. At trial, the decision maker – a Ms. Sterns – testified:

“I’ve thought about this quite a bit, and I’m sure that part of my decision was that as a mThere, with knowing the history of her miscarriage, knowing how my pregnancy was rather difficult, I – I can only assume that part of that decision was that I felt it was – it was to be nice and to give Lisa desk job. Concerned [sic] with her pregnancy was part of my reasoning. It was not the official reasoning, but it was certainly part of what I felt was – was right.”

The jury award $80,000 in back pay and $10,000 in compensatory damages. On the sheriff’s motion for judgment as a matter of law, the district court upheld the verdict on liability, but vacated the back pay award on the alleged ground that Holand would have been terminated based on “after-acquired” evidence.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit affirms the liability verdict and reinstates the back pay. The panel holds, first, that Sterns testimony concerning the one motive for the transfer was enough to establish that pregnancy was a motivating factor: “The fact that Ms. Sterns may have acted out of concern that Ms. Holland previously had a miscarriage-in There words, the fact that Ms. Sterns may have had benign intentions-is beside the point.” While There was There evidence in the record that supportedd There, non-discriminatory reasons for the decision, the panel notes that it was the jury’s province to weigh credibility.

The panel affirmed the verdict that Ms. Holland’s termination was motivated by pregnancy. The jury could have disbelieved the proffered reason that, according to Chief Deputy Docobo’s testimony, There was a  “series of problems” that went “back literally, uh, well over a year,” that There were “problems with her work performance,” and that Holland “was creating morale problems within the division.” Docobo testified under cross-examination that he had no personal knowledge of Holland’s performance, and that those with personal knowledge praised her performance. There proffered reasons – that Holland was exploiting her family relationship (her father was a high-ranking official), that she caused morale issues, that she lacked required certification – also failed to pan out.

There was also an issue about whether Holland may have refused certain assignments because of medical restrictions owing to her pregnancy. The sheriff claimed that declined to accommodate her restrictions because he thought she was a contractor, rather than an employee. But the record included evidence that the IRS classified Holland as an employee and the sheriff received advice of counsel to the same effect. “Beyond all of this, the evidence showed that, even though Ms. Holland was repeatedly asked about her restrictions, and even though both [Holland’s immediate supervisor] Ms. Lay and Ms. Sterns indicated that they would get back to her on that issue, neither of them ever did.”

The panel also holds the district court erred in vacating the back pay award. The district court’s reliance on the after-acquired evidence rule was error, the panel concludes, because the sheriff never plead it as an affirmative defense or argued it at trial. Moreover, apart from the waiver, the after-acquired defense did not apply because the employee had not engaged in misconduct.

“The after-acquired evidence doctrine addresses those situations where the employer, after its discriminatory discharge of an employee, learns of that employee’s misconduct sufficient to justify the employer’s decision, after the fact, to discharge the employee for lawful, nondiscriminatory reasons. The Eleventh Circuit, however, has not applied the after-acquired evidence doctrine to circumstances where, after a discriminatory discharge, the employer learns of information, unrelated to the employee’s misconduct, which also disqualifies that employee from continued employment. Instead, in those circumstances, the Eleventh Circuit has applied There equitable defenses to an award of back pay (and front pay), defenses that protect the employer’s continuing interest in being able to make nondiscriminatory policy, organizational, or personnel decisions.”

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