Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘punitive damages’

Employee Rights Short Takes: Scalia's Impartiality Questioned, Two Punitive Damage Awards, Disability Discrimination And More

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

Here are a few employee rights Short Takes worth noting:

Scalia Says Due Process Clause Does Not Prohibit Sex Discrimination

For those who may have missed it, Justice Antonin Scalia recently expressed his view that neither women nor gays are protected against discrimination under the 14th amendment of the Constitution. The statement was made in an interview this month published in the California Lawyer.

While it’s newsworthy because of the shock value alone, Scalia has expressed this view before. All one has to do is read the 1996 decision of  United States v. Virginia, in which Scalia was the only justice to dissent from the Supreme Court’s decision to end the Virginia Military Institute’s 157 year old state supported practice of only accepting male students.

Not surprisingly, Scalia’s recent remarks angered liberals and was criticized by many legal scholars. Marcia Greenberger, founder and co-President of the Women’s Law Center, as reported in the Huffington Post, called  Scalia’s comments “shocking in light of the decades of precedents and the numbers of justices who have agreed that there is protection in the 14th Amendment against sex discrimination, and struck down many, many laws in many, many areas on the basis of that protection.”

Scalia’s comments stem from his view that the 14th amendment , when written, was not intended to ban sex discrimination. As to Scalia’s originalist view, Eric Segall, a professor at Georgia State College of Law, had this to say in his letter to the editor published in the New York Times:

On issues of affirmative action, gender rights, gun control and campaign finance reform, among most other controversial constitutional law questions, Justice Scalia does not truly use an originalist methodology. Much more of his judicial style can be gleaned from looking at the Republican Party Platform than at the drafters of either the original Constitution or the 14th amendment.

For Justice Scalia, it is about results, not process, no matter how much he protests otherwise.

In the same vein, Scalia also also made news with the announcement of his role as a featured speaker at  Michele Bachmann’s tea party / “Constitutional Conservative Caucus” later this month. For more about questions raised regarding Justice Scalia’s impartiality, read Nan Aaron here.

EEOC Settles Disability Discrimination Case For 3.2 Million

Jewel –Osco’s parent company Supervalu  Inc. has agreed to pay $3.2 million to settle a federal lawsuit claiming that the company discriminated against its disabled employees.

The suit, filed by the EEOC, alleged that Jewel-Osco fired employees with disabilities at the end of their leaves rather than bringing them back to work with reasonable accommodations.

According to the EEOC, roughly 1000 employees at Jewel-Osco stores were fired under this policy. One employee who will benefit from the settlement is Rosemary Bednarek who is representative of the class.

Bednarek injured her back lifting boxes of chicken at a Jewel-Osco store in 2004. When she was able to return to work, her doctor advised that she should not lift more than 20 pounds but the company would not accommodate the restriction. Bednarek re-injured her back and was fired a year later.

This is a great settlement that will not only benefit the plaintiffs in the case, but also serve to remind employers of their obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to accommodate employees with disabilities — including those who are injured on the job.

Two New Decisions On Punitive Damages

We do not often see employment law decisions in which punitive damages are addressed, so to see two in the last few weeks is worth talking about.

Generally speaking, punitive damages are available in some cases in which the defendant engaged in a deliberate or reckless disregard of the rights of others.

The jury, in determining the amount of the punitive damage award, is permitted to consider a number of factors, including a sum of money that would discourage the defendant from engaging in the conduct in the future as well as the income and assets of the defendant. Some large punitive damage awards are challenged on grounds that they violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.

Here’s a brief synopsis of the cases:

Hamlin v Hampton Lumbar Mills, Inc.:  Plaintiff Ken Hamlin was injured while working at the Hampton Lumbar Mills. When he was released to return to work, the defendant falsely asserting that he was a “safety risk” and refused to to reinstate him as required by Oregon law.

The case went to trial and the jury awarded lost wages of $6000 and punitive damages in the amount of $175, 000. On appeal, the Court of Appeals held that the punitive damage award was “grossly excessive” under the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution and reduced it to a sum equivalent to four times the amount of the compensatory damages.

In an instructive review of the case law on punitive damages, the Oregon Supreme Court reversed holding that a punitive damage award may exceed a single digit multiplier of a compensatory damage award without violating due process or being “grossly excessive.”

The case is an excellent reference point for anyone briefing an argument for punitive damages in an employment case.

Claus v. Intrigue Hotel, LLC:  In this age discrimination case, the jury awarded $50,000 in actual damages and $150,000 in punitive damages in a bifurcated trial. The defendant appealed. The Court of Appeals affirmed the verdict in a decision issued late last month.

In brief, Glenda Claus worked for Intrigue Hotels (including its predecessor) since 1984. Her last position was housekeeping supervisor. In 2007, Claus was fired and replaced by a 31 year old employee.

Claus, 63 at the time, testified that she was completely blindsided by the news of her termination. With a record of positive job performance evaluations, a failure to admonish Claus regarding job deficiencies, and replacement with a 31 year old employee with performance issues, the Court of Appeals held that the jury could have rejected Intrigue’s after the fact rationale that Claus was fired for poor performance.

In addition, there was evidence that her new supervisor (Galaviz ) stated he wanted employees who would be at the hotel for the “long haul” and that Claus was “resistant to change.” The Court held that the jury could have reasonably taken these statements to mean that Galaviz did not want older employees and that Claus’s age was a factor in her firing.

The evidence also showed that Galaviz had been engaged as a human resources consultant and had an extensive knowledge of employment law at the time he made these comments and fired Galaviz.

Worth noting is the Court’s statement that the same evidence which supported Claus’s substantive claim for age discrimination also supported her claim for punitive damages  As the Court pointed out,  both Copidas (the owner of the hotel) and Galaviz:

  • knew it was against the law to fire an employee because of age
  • fired a 63 year old employee with a spotless record
  • replaced her with a 31 year old with documented performance problems
  • promoted several younger employees with performance issues
  • altered its rationale for firing Claus several times and created pretextual reasons for firing her

In sum, the Court concluded that the jury’s award of punitive damages was supported by the evidence. The case was remanded to the trial court for an award of reasonable attorney’s fees and costs — a great victory for Claus and her lawyer.

This case is a good example of the kind of evidence which supports a claim for age discrimination as well as a claim for punitive damages. As stated above, since we don’t often see decisions affirming a punitive damage award, these cases are worth noting.

This article was originally posted on Employee Rights Post.

About the Author: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the leading  employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States. She offers legal advice to individuals on employment rights, age/gender/race and disability discrimination, retaliation and sexual harassment. With a unique grasp of the issues, Ellen’s a sought-after legal analyst who discusses high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and woman’s issues. Her blog, Employee Rights Post has dedicated readers who turn to Ellen for her advice and opinion. For more information go to www.ellensimon.net.

Employee Rights Short Takes: Hostile Work Environment, GINA, FMLA And More

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

Here are a few Short Takes worth sharing:

Sex Bias Case Ends With Huge Punitive Damages Award

The drug maker Novartis was hit with $250 million in punitive damages last week because of discrimination against thousands of female sales representatives. Issues involved discrimination in pay, promotion and pregnancy. The punitive damages award represented 2.6 of the company’s 2009 $9.5 billion revenue. Earlier in the week, the jury awarded $3.3 million dollars in compensatory damages to 12 of the women who testified. The case is reported to be the largest discrimination verdict ever.

Genetics Discrimination

Complaints were filed against MX Energy, a Connecticut natural gas retailer, under Title II of  Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA), which prohibits genetic information discrimination in employment. The new federal law took effect on November 21, 2009.

GINA prohibits discrimination against employees or applicants because of genetic information. GINA also restricts acquisition of genetic information by employers and other entities covered by Title II, and strictly limits the disclosure of genetic information.

The charging party Pamela Fink, claims that her employer fired her, despite years of glowing evaluations, after learning she tested positive for the breast cancer gene. Fink filed complaints against her employer with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. About 90 GINA-related complaints have been filed nationwide since the law went into effect. This should be an interesting case to follow. For more about genetic discrimination, read here.

Rights Of Undocumented Workers

With all the talk about illegal immigration, one might wonder what the rights are of the over eight million undocumented workers in this country. Carolina Nunez, a law professor at Brigham Young University’s Reuben Clark Law School, wrote an interesting article about the topic which you can read here. The piece appeared in the Spring 2010 issue  of the Clark Memorandum, a publication of BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School.

Should undocumented workers enjoy the same workplace protections that authorized workers enjoy? When and how much should immigration status matter? Does being here count for anything? It is no surprise that the answers are less than clear.

Recent Cases Of Interest From The Circuits

Plaintiff Wins FMLA Appeal: In Goelzer v. Sheboygan County, Wisconsin Dorothy Goelzer was fired from her administrative job with the county government after 20 years. Her supervisor told her about the termination decision two weeks before she was scheduled to begin two months of leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Goelzer had taken a significant amount of authorized FMLA during the four preceding years to deal with her own health issues as well as those of her husband and mother. The defendants claimed she was fired because they wanted to hire someone with a “greater skill set.” The district court granted judgment against Goelzer.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed this month stating that comments suggesting frustration with her use of leave, Goelzer’s favorable performance reviews, and the timing of her termination could lead a jury to conclude that Goelzer was fired because she exercised her right to take FMLA. This is a very good case for those who are claiming an interference or retaliation claim under the FMLA.

Employers Liable For Third Party Harassment: In Beckford v. Department of Corrections, Melanie Beckford, and thirteen other female employees, claimed that the Florida Department of Corrections failed to remedy the sexually offensive conduct of inmates  — including the frequent use of gender-specific abusive language and pervasive gunning, the notorious practice of inmates openly masturbating toward female staff. The jury found in favor the plaintiffs and awarded each $45,000 in damages.

The Department appealed and contended that it could not be liable under Title VII unless its staff actively encouraged or participated in the harassment. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the verdict and concluded that the jury was entitled to find the Department liable because it unreasonably failed to remedy the sexual harassment by its inmates. The Court said:

It is well established that employers may be liable for failing to remedy the harassment of employees by third parties who create a hostile environment. …It makes no difference whether the person whose acts are complained of is an employee, an independent contractor, or for that matter a customer.

Employees are often harassed at work by individuals who are not employees. This case, which holds that employers are liable for harassment by third parties, is an important affirmation of this particular aspect of employer liability under Title VII.

images: www.hivplusmag.com charityrisk.squarespace.com

*This post originally appeared in Employee Rights Post on May 24, 2010. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Ellen Simon: is recognized as one of the leading  employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States.She offers legal advice to individuals on employment rights, age/gender/race and disability discrimination, retaliation and sexual harassment. With a unique grasp of the issues, Ellen’s a sought-after legal analyst who discusses high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and woman’s issues. Her blog, Employee Rights Post has dedicated readers who turn to Ellen for her advice and opinion. For more information go to www.ellensimon.net.

Employee Rights Short Takes: Wage Discrimination, Race Discrimination, Sexual Harassment and More

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

Here are a few Short Takes worth sharing:

Sex Discrimination

Ninth Circuit Certifies Wal-Mart Class Action: In Dukes v. Wal-Mart, a decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on April 26th, the Court certified a class in a Title VII lawsuit involving 1.5 million women seeking compensation for back pay. The Court remanded the case to the district court for a determination regarding punitive damages based upon several factors set forth in the decision. The next step is most likely a request for the Supreme Court to hear the case. For more about the case, see the California Punitive Damages Blog. For an interesting story about Betty Dukes, the Wal-Mart greeter and lead plaintiff  see the article here from the Huffington Post. This case is reported to be the largest class action in history.

Sexual Harassment

EEOC Collects $471,000 In Sex Harassment Case: The EEOC reported last week that Everdry Marketing and Management paid $471,096 in damages, plus $86,581 in post-judgment interest to 13 victims of sexual harassment. The payout stems from a four week jury trial in Rochester, New York and a Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision which affirmed the award in favor of the plaintiffs. The case involved a prolonged period of physical and verbal sexual harassment of mostly teenage telemarketers by male managers and co-workers at Everdry’s Rochester, N.Y. location including demands for sex, groping, sexual jokes and constant comments about the bodies of women employees. The story presents another example of the widespread problem of teenage sexual harassment in the U.S

Has The Sixth Circuit Had An Attitude Adjustment?

Two cases last month out of the Sixth Circuit  Court of Appeals made me think that attitudes on employment discrimination cases may be shifting.

Summary Judgment Reversed In Race Discrimination Case: In Thompson v UHHSS Richmond Heights Hospital, Inc, the plaintiff was terminated from her position as a food production supervisor when she was told that her position was eliminated in a restructuring. Thompson believed  that she was selected for termination because of her race and filed a lawsuit. The district court granted summary judgment against her. The Sixth Circuit reversed finding that evidence of Thompson’s superior qualifications in comparison to the employee who assumed most of her job duties showed that she was replaced and also showed pretext. In addition, evidence that a supervisor said to “get rid of” certain black employees whom he called “troublemakers,” which the district court gave “little weight,” corroborated accusations of discriminatory behavior according to the Court.

Sexual Harassment Verdict Affirmed On Appeal: In West v. Tyson Foods,Inc. the Court affirmed a sexual harassment award including $750,000 for past and future mental distress, and $300,000 in punitive damages. In addition to great language on damages, the Court also addressed the sufficiency of reporting sexual harassment to one supervisor as constituting “notice” and a “missing evidence” jury instruction from which the jury is entitled to draw a negative inference. The plaintiff, an assembly line worker, was subjected to a barrage of verbal and physical harassment – 10 to 15 times per shift — during her five weeks of employment at the Tyson Foods plant in Robards, Kentucky. The jury awarded more in damages that West’s lawyer requested which the Sixth Circuit both addressed and confirmed.

images: www.hickmankytourism.com

www.reclaimdemocracy.org

*This post originally appeared in Employee Rights Post on May 12, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ellen Simon: is recognized as one of the leading  employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States.She offers legal advice to individuals on employment rights, age/gender/race and disability discrimination, retaliation and sexual harassment. With a unique grasp of the issues, Ellen’s a sought-after legal analyst who discusses high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and woman’s issues. Her blog, Employee Rights Post has dedicated readers who turn to Ellen for her advice and opinion. For more information go to www.ellensimon.net.

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