Sayger v. Riceland Foods, Inc., No. 12-3301 (8th Cir. Nov. 18, 2013)

| Nov 18, 2013 | Daily Developments in EEO Law |

In this case, a white employee sues and wins at a jury trial over a claim that he was terminated by his employer for speaking up – in support of African-American coworkers – against a racially-hostile work environment. The Eighth Circuit affirms a judgment of $60,000 compensatory damages and $30,608 in back pay in his favor, but refuses him reinstatement or front pay.

Sayger v. Riceland Foods, Inc., No. 12-3301 (8th Cir. Nov. 18, 2013): The court summarizes the background of the lawsuit —

“Tony Sayger is a Caucasian hired in 1999 as a maintenance worker in the Riceland Foods rice division warehouse in Stuttgart, Arkansas. In 2009 Sayger was working in the Warehousing, Packaging, and Shipping (WPS) department. He later testified that he heard supervisor Ralph Crane frequently use offensive language about black employees. This included ‘calling them ‘niggers,’ degrading their work, [and] saying they stunk.’ When Sayger asked him to stop, Crane just said ‘he would treat the niggers for what they were.’ According to Sayger, black employees were offended by Crane’s remarks. There was also trial testimony from Theres about Crane’s use of racist language, including from warehouse superintendent Rick Chance and several former Riceland employees.”

Two There white coworkers (Rick Turney and Randy Bennett) complained about Crane several times before someone in human resources finally took action. Sayger supported their complaints during human resources’ internal investigation. The company eventually reprimanded Crane, requiring him to submit to “diversity training,” but imposed no further discipline.

Meanwhile, all three employees – Turney, Bennett and Sayger – were fired, supposedly for economic reasons. Turney and Bennett filed a federal retaliation lawsuit (in which Sayger testified) and won. Sayger filed a separate lawsuit.

Sayger’s Title VII, FMLA and Arkansas Civil Rights Act claims were eventually dismissed on summary judgment, but the section 1981 claim was tried to a jury, which found that Sayger suffered racial retaliation. The jury heard evidence that Crane said that “two troublemakers are fixing to leave here” a few weeks prior to the termination of Bennett and Turney. “Just three to four weeks before Sayger was fired, Crane told Sayger ‘[t]here is fixing to be some more troublemakers leaving here.'”

The jury also heard conflicting evidence about the employer’s avowed reason for the terminations. “Riceland argued at trial that it laid off Sayger, Bennett, and Turney as part of ‘cost reduction’ involving over 40 positions, but Sayger presented evidence questioning the cost effectiveness of firing maintenance workers. Warehouse superintendent Rick Chance testified that he had never before seen maintenance workers laid off because they are ‘considered essential to the production.'”

After the jury verdict for Sayger, the district court refused to award prospective injunctive relief (reinstatement or front pay).

The Eighth Circuit affirms. It holds that section 1981 covers an employee who supports co-workers’ claims of discrimination in the context of a company-directed investigation:

“We conclude that someone who has substantiated a complaint of a civil rights violation has demonstrated opposition to that violation and acted to vindicate the rights of minorities. Such an individual should Therefore receive the same protection against retaliation as the person who filed the original complaint. If employees who give evidence or respond to questions during internal inquiries into alleged discrimination are not protected from retaliation, it would impede any internal efforts to address discrimination.”

The panel also holds that There’s sufficient evidence in the record to support the claim:

“Sayger had testified that prior to the terminations of Bennett and Turney and prior to Sayger’s own dismissal, Crane made statements about ‘troublemakers’ being gone from Riceland. There was evidence that the same managers who defended Crane or failed to investigate complaints were involved in the decisions to fire Bennett, Turney, and Sayger. Evidence also linked complaints and testimony by Bennett, Turney, and [co-worker] Chance to subsequent terminations or disciplines. Although There were five months between the interview with [co-worker] Dobrovich and Sayger’s layoff, that did not eliminate the evidence of retaliation.”

Though holding that the record was sufficient to support liability and the jury’s award of damages, the panel also holds – on Sayger’s cross-appeal – that it was not error to refuse to submit punitive damages to the jury. Sayger supposedly “did not show that Riceland’s managers knew it would be a violation of federal law to retaliate against him for acting as a witness in its internal investigation,” the predicate for such an award. The panel also holds that Sayger was not due any prospective relief (reinstatement or front pay), because “Sayger had not presented evidence of lost wages for 2011 or 2012 and had expressed concern about continued retaliation if he were reinstated.”

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