An Eighth Circuit trifecta: The EEOC wins a Title VII punitive damage issue in a pregnancy discrimination case, a Title VII/§ 1981/§ 1983 hiring claim flames out on the issue of pretext, and an ADEA claim is three days late to the start line.
EEOC v. Siouxland Oral Maxillofacial Surgery, LLC,, No. 07-2419 (8th Cir. Aug. 27, 2009): A medical office fires one recently-hired employee (Dooley), who they discover is pregnant and could be on maternity leave during their busy period, then turns around and refuses to hire another woman (Gacke) who they also discover is pregnant. The evidence at trial was not subtle. One woman was told she was fired because “your baby is going to be due during our busy season.” The second woman is told about her pregnancy that “yes, it’s a problem. You are just going to end up causing more work for everybody else than you will be helping them.” At trial, the jury found liability for the EEOC on both claims, awarding (respectively) $15,341 and $5,757 in back pay to the two women, but the district court refused a punitive damage instruction.
The Eighth Circuit reverses and remands for a punitive damage trial. The panel holds that the jury should have been allowed to determine whether the office acted in knowing or reckless disregard for the women’s civil rights. The defendant, naturally, had alternative explanations for the two decisions, but the panel holds that the jury was not required to believe them:
“Siouxland offers one reasonable interpretation of the evidence presented at trial, but the jury evidently did not accept it. If the jury believed that Akerman terminated Dooley solely because of her unavailability, then it should not have found Siouxland liable for pregnancy discrimination against Dooley. See Rhett v. Carnegie Ctr. Assocs. (In re Carnegie Ctr. Assocs.), 129 F.3d 290, 296-98 (3d Cir. 1997); Troupe v. May Dep’t Stores Co., 20 F.3d 734, 737-39 (7th Cir. 1994). Likewise, if the jury believed Kost that Gacke was rejected exclusively because she was unqualified, then it should not have found Siouxland liable to Gacke. Having found that pregnancy was a motivating factor in each case, and presented with evidence that [decision makers] Akerman and Kost knew that pregnancy discrimination was illegal, a reasonable jury also could find that their discrimination was recklessly indifferent to the federally protected rights of Dooley and Gacke.”
The panel nonetheless affirms denial of EEOC’s request for injunctive relief (holding that two incidents of discrimination from five years ago did not furnish sufficient basis for prospective relief). And it remands for reconsideration a reduced fee award to the two claimants’ attorney (who they both used), in light of the prospect of future punitive damages.
Dixon v. Pulaski Co. Special school Dist., No. 08-3201 (8th Cir. Aug. 27, 2009): Although Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc., 530 U.S. 133 (2000), was supposed to ring an close to “pretext-plus,” don’t you believe it! Once again, a U.S. Court of Appeals holds that even though an employee made out a prima facie case, and introduced evidence that the employer did not genuinely believe the reason it gave for not hiring her, summary judgment is still fair because the African-American plaintiff did not go the extra mile and show that the false explanation was a pretext for race.
In this case, the employer contended that plaintiff was not hired because she did not meet the minimum qualifications for the job. By the employee’s telling, though, she met the qualifications for the original posted job, and became disqualified only after that first posting was withdrawn (after she had already applied) and another substituted that added a five-year minimum experience in public purchasing. The record established a question of fact about whether school district policy would have required that the amended job description by resubmitted to a Board of Education Policies for review. The plaintiff’s theory was that the decision-maker (named Winburn), who also altered the job description, tailored the position to favor a white candidate.
The panel affirms summary judgment, finding that despite procedural anomalies in the hiring process, the employee never established that the swerves and deviations were motivated by race. The panel is also moved by the fact — though not advanced by the employer as a reason for the decision — that the person hired had twenty years relevant experience as a public purchaser. In sum:
“To be sure, evidence is not required to ‘show’ a discriminatory animus directly, see Reeves, 530 U.S. at 148, but while in some cases the evidence of pretext — together with the evidence supporting the prima facie case — may be sufficient to infer a discriminatory animus, such a combined showing is not necessarily enough to support that inference in every case. Id. (‘This is not to say that such a showing by the plaintiff will always be adequate to sustain a jury’s finding of liability.’) . . . . No evidence of discriminatory animus is required if the other evidence is sufficient to support an inference of discriminatory animus. In light of Dixon’s weak prima facie case, the limited probative value of her evidence of falsity, and the disparity in qualifications, her evidence of the school District’s procedural irregularities is insufficient to survive summary judgment.”
In short, under the Eighth Circuit case law, we’ve gone from evidence of falsity serving as the baseline standard for proof of pretext to being the exception, retreating back to St. Mary’s Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 515 (1993).
Hutson v. Wells Dairy, Inc., No. 08-3895 (8th Cir. Aug. 27, 2009): Upon learning that she would be terminated, plaintiff waited a fateful 303 days to file her charge with the EEOC for age and sex discrimination. The Eighth Circuit affirms summary judgment, following the orthodox rule that the clock runs on the charging period from the “day when the employer notifies the employee of the decision to terminate her employment” (citing Delaware State Coll. v. Ricks, 449 U.S. 250, 257-58 (1980)). Nothing especially new here, but we note that plaintiff neglected to argue “waiver, estoppel or equitable tolling.” Because she was replaced at a later date by a man fifteen years younger than she was, it would appear at least arguable that limitations was tolled until that event; prior to then, she did not even have a prima facie case to take to the EEOC. That still might not have justified waiting out the ten months to file a charge, but would have possibly given her a fighting chance.