Two decisions this week address racially-hostile work environment claims involving unusual circumstances. The Fourth Circuit addresses the employer's duty to address anonymous race harassment, here a death threat left in a company mailbox. The Eighth Circuit addresses harassment of an African-American supervisor by her Somali staff. Both result in reversals of summary judgment on Title VII and § 1981 harassment claims.
The Eighth Circuit reverses summary judgment in this ADEA and Minnesota Human Rights Act case, holding that a jury could find that the city's failure to promote the city's lieutenant to Chief of Police was motivated by age. Importantly, it notes that an employer that assumes that people who are retirement-eligible are "uncommitted" to a promotion are skating on thin-ice.
The Eighth Circuit, en banc (9-3), today affirms summary judgment in an ADEA case. The surprise is not so much in the outcome as the vote split, which is not along ordinary lines. In second case, a panel reverses (in part) summary judgment on another ADEA claim, finding that pointed inquiries into an employee's Medicare eligibility and health-plan costs were probative evidence of age bias.
When a retirement plan manages employees' money, it also has a responsibility to keep an eye on the expenses that can quietly erode away earnings. The Eighth Circuit affirms an ERISA breach of fiduciary duty judgment against two retirement plans for allowing its recordkeeper to overcharge the fund for services, and orders the return of $13.4 million. The court nonetheless vacates for further proceedings a claim for inappropriate investment options, and reverses (over a dissent) a judgment that the plan recordkeeper converted short-term funds (a "float") to non-plan purposes.
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.
'Twas unfortunate that the Eighth Circuit should choose not to publish this short opinion today, reversing summary judgment in a race discrimination case under Title VII and the Arkansas Civil Rights Act. It illustrates the important point that even seriously misbehaving workers have a right not to be discriminated against in employment. A suspended employee presents a genuine dispute of material fact about whether a white employee who committed a comparably serious work rule violation was treated more lightly.
summary judgment motions and appeals in employment discrimination cases often ask, at their core, whether a jury should be empanelled to weigh conflicting evidence (and inferences) and decide whether a supervisor involved in a termination decision harbored a biased motive. Here, where a fired 76-year-old security guard presented evidence that his supervisor told him that he "needed to hang up his Superman cape" and was "too old to be working," at least two of the three judges thought that a jury should decide that question.
Two recent decisions from the Eighth Circuit serve as a reminder that employment discrimination and retaliation cases are being tried and employees are winning. In Hudson, the Court affirms a nearly $180,000 jury verdict in a Title VII and ADA discrimination case, including $100,000 in emotional distress damages. In Al-Birekdar, the court upholds a $200,000 verdict for retaliation under the Missouri Human Rights Act.
This government services case, brought under Title II of the ADA and Minnesota state law, demonstrates graphically - in a lesson important to ADA Title I employment cases - how the absence of American sign-language interpreters can impede understanding (and possibly result in legal liability). The panel holds that the city's failure to provide signers for a police interrogation may violate the rights of the disabled accused.
Employees and practitioners in the Eighth Circuit be warned - Title VII claims of post-charge-filing retaliation require the filing of a fresh (or amended) charge with the EEOC. The court decides the issue in a 2-1 decision which widens the circuit split on this issue in the wake of Nat'l R.R. Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, 536 U.S. 101 (2002).