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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.

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