Court Report

May 1, 2005
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HR Magazine, May 2005Sham Investigation Yields Punitive Damages

Chavez v. Thomas & Betts Corp., 10th Cir.,
No. 03-2265, 03-2274, 03-2304, Jan. 24, 2005.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld a jury award including more than $350,000 in punitive damages in a same-sex Title VII claim. The evidence supported a finding that the employer was recklessly indifferent to the employee’s Title VII right to be free of sex discrimination.

Deanne Chavez started working at a manufacturing facility owned by Thomas & Betts Corp. (T&B) in 1987. In 2000, T&B promoted Patricia Marrujo, a female co-worker of Chavez, to a supervisory position. After that, Marrujo began to make inappropriate remarks to Chavez, humiliating her in front of co-workers and physically assaulting her—on one occasion pulling down Chavez’ pants in front of other employees. Although Chavez reported the behavior to T&B supervisors, production managers, the HR department and the plant manager, no one took action to resolve the problem. At one point, the HR department told Chavez it would conduct an investigation, but no credible investigation was conducted until months after the incident.

Eventually, Marrujo was transferred to another workgroup, but she told Chavez the transfer was a unilateral decision, not a disciplinary measure. In January 2001, Chavez heard Marrujo was being transferred back to her original shift. Chavez then took medical and personal leave. When her Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) paperwork was late, Chavez was fired for violating T&B’s attendance policy.

Chavez filed a lawsuit against T&B and Marrujo, claiming violations of Title VII and of certain state statutes. At trial, Chavez presented evidence of her reports of harassment and of the company’s failure to take remedial action. She also presented memos, written by a T&B supervisor, warning management that Marrujo’s conduct was unacceptable and could lead to legal liability. Although the memos recommended Marrujo’s discharge, the company took no disciplinary action.

At the conclusion of the trial, the jury awarded Chavez $145,625 in compensatory damages and $354,375 in punitive damages. It also awarded monetary damages against Marrujo on the state claims.

On appeal, the 10th Circuit upheld the damage award, and specifically addressed the propriety of the punitive damages. Punitive damages are available under Title VII if there is proof that an employer engaged in intentional discrimination with malice or with reckless indifference to an employee’s federally protected rights. The U.S. Supreme Court has defined “malice” or “recklessness” to include situations in which an employee can prove that an employer discriminated “in the face of a perceived risk that its actions violate federal law.”

The court found that T&B acted “in the face of a perceived risk” that it would violate Chavez’ rights when it failed to enforce its own sexual harassment policy, failed to respond to complaints made under its reporting procedure and failed to conduct an investigation in spite of a promise to do so. Therefore, punitive damages were appropriate.

By Maria Greco Danaher, an attorney with the firm of Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote in Pittsburgh.

Complaining About Client’s Discrimination Is Protected

Flowers v. Columbia College Chicago, 7th Cir.
No. 04-2899, Feb. 8, 2005.

An employer that fires an employee for complaining about discrimination by another entity violates Title VII, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has held.

Columbia College Chicago had a contract with the Chicago school system to provide guidance counseling services. The college hired Michael Flowers and assigned him to work as a guidance counselor at a public high school. When the high school principal told Flowers he could not wear a religious head covering, Flowers filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against the school system. The school system complained to the college, which then fired Flowers solely because he had filed the EEOC charge.

Flowers sued the Chicago school system for failing to accommodate his religious beliefs, and he filed a separate action against the college for retaliation. Flowers’ case against the school system was dismissed because the school system was not his employer.

His retaliation case against the college also was dismissed. In the retaliation case, the lower court ruled that Title VII did not prevent the college from firing him for complaining about discrimination by someone other than the college. The 7th Circuit disagreed and held that Flowers had a valid retaliation claim against the college, even if he did not have a valid discrimination claim against the school system.

Title VII forbids an employer to retaliate against any employee who has opposed any unlawful practice or who has filed a charge, testified, assisted or participated in any investigation or proceeding under Title VII. The statute protects complaints that are made against someone other than the plaintiff’s own employer, so “[n]o employer may retaliate against someone who makes or supports a charge of discrimination against any employer,” the court said.

The court also rejected the college’s argument that Flowers’ charge against the school system was unprotected because it was “baseless.” However, the court explained that the only defect in Flowers’ charge was a technical one, particularly since “[t]he high school was, if not his ‘employer,’ at least using his labor. If a gaffe on a technical issue allowed the employer to show the worker the door, the anti-retaliation provision would be diluted to the point of uselessness,” the court said.

By Michael E. Wilbur, an attorney with the firm of Cook & Roos LLP in San Francisco, an affiliate of Worklaw Network.

Pain and Dizziness Not Disability

Guzman-Rosario v. United Parcel Service Inc., 1st Cir.

No. 04-1046, Feb. 3, 2005. An employee who suffered from occasional bouts of pain and dizziness due to ovarian cysts was not disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because her condition did not substantially limit a major life activity, according to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

United Parcel Service Inc. (UPS) employed Abigail Guzman-Rosario in its Carolina, Puerto Rico, facility. Guzman-Rosario’s job required her to stand and move around a conveyor belt.

In November 1997, Guzman-Rosario was diagnosed with ovarian cysts. She intermittently suffered dizzy spells and pain that required her either to sit or lie down. Between November 1997 and July 1998, when she had the cysts surgically removed, Guzman-Rosario was absent from work in excess of her sick leave due, in part, to her condition.

UPS discharged Guzman-Rosario in July 1998, for reasons unrelated to her medical condition or her absences.

Guzman-Rosario sued UPS, alleging a failure to accommodate her disability. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of UPS, finding that she had not been disabled before her surgery.

On appeal, the court examined two issues: whether the ovarian cysts represented a condition that was sufficiently long-lasting to qualify as a disability and whether Guzman-Rosario’s condition sufficiently impinged on a major life activity to be treated as disabling.

“[T]he ADA is not a medical leave act nor a requirement of accommodation for common conditions that are short-term or can be promptly remedied,” the court said. Noting that the U.S. Supreme Court has left unclear how lower courts should handle conditions that last between six and 24 months, the court declined to rule on that issue.

As for the second issue, Guzman-Rosario claimed she was substantially limited in the major life activities of working, caring for her family, socializing, doing housework and driving. The court found, however, that she presented no evidence that the episodes of pain and dizziness were so frequent as to impair her performance of any of the nonwork activities or that she was significantly restricted or precluded from a class or broad range of jobs.

She showed, at most, that she had difficulty performing her particular job at UPS. Accordingly, she was not substantially limited in the major life activity of working and, therefore, was not disabled.

By Lawrence Peikes and Meghan D. Burns, attorneys with the firm of Wiggin & Dana LLP in Stamford, Conn., and New Haven, Conn., respectively.

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