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Olivares v. Brentwood Indus., No. 15-2674 (8th Cir. May 13, 2016)

The Eighth Circuit today issued a short, cautionary opinion for plaintiffs who seek reinstatement (or front pay) in a discrimination case. Here, the employer - which the jury found liable for violating the employee's Title VII rights - escaped all but $1 of damages, where the district court found that reinstatement was not practical, and that the employee failed to make a strong enough case for front pay.

Olivares v. Brentwood Indus., No. 15-2674 (8th Cir. May 13, 2016): The employee won a Title VII trial in Arkansas, with the jury finding that he was fired from his supervisory job because of race. The jury credited testimony that indicated a bias against Mexicans in the workplace:

"[I]n January 2013, Olivares spoke with supervisor Frankie Powell about distributing permanent employment applications to several temporary workers whom he supervised. Powell told Olivares not to give applications to any Mexican temporary worker because the plant manager Jay Travillion did not want to employ any more Mexicans."

The jury thus  (by inference) rejected the employer's defense that the plaintiff was fired because of his overlooking safety violations by subordinates. Nevertheless, the jury awarded only nominal ($1) damages to the plaintiff.

The plaintiff then asked the district court judge to award reinstatement to his old job, or else award front pay to compensate him for the loss of future employment opportunities. Although the plaintiff found an other job, it paid him far less:

"The record included evidence that while Olivares was a supervisor at Brentwood, his annual salary was over $40,000. He also had employer sponsored health insurance, and Brentwood matched his 401(k) plan contributions up to 4% of his annual salary. Olivares submitted two of his December 2012 Brentwood pay stubs to support his testimony about his income There. He testified that his annual salary at Klipsch is about $20,000, that he receives employer sponsored health insurance, and that he has a 401(k) plan without any matching employer contributions."

The court nevertheless denied all prospective relief, leaving the plaintiff with a buck for his troubles.

The Eighth Circuit, in a six-page opinion, affirms. It first holds that reinstatement to his old job, which was now filled, was impracticable. Even if a position were open, the district court found that reinstatement was also infeasible because There was a breakdown in trust owing to the alleged safety violation:

"Plant manager Travillion testified that Olivares was untrustworthy because he had failed to enforce safety rules at the plant. Olivares claims that the district court erred by crediting Travillion's testimony as a reason to deny reinstatement since the jury had rejected this justification for his termination. 'In making a front pay award, the district court is not free to reject or contradict findings by the jury on issues that were properly submitted to the jury.' .... [But] the jury in this case made no findings as to whether Olivares had in fact violated the safety rules or whether Travillion's trust concerns were genuine."

This case suggests, implicitly, that it may be best to submit factual issues relevant to prospective relief to a jury for findings, even though the judge ultimately determines the award. The jury's findings then would be binding on the court.

The panel also affirms the denial of front pay, on the ground that the plaintiff presented insufficient proof of future income: "The district court declined to speculate about a damage award based solely on Olivares's testimony that his annual salary was $20,000 ... Olivares had not submitted evidence like current ... pay stubs or other documents showing his post verdict pay."

As is too often the case, the court finds that the plaintiff could have done considerably more to support his request for future lost wages, especially by presenting current pay stubs as opposed to historical and out-of-date tax and wage documents.

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