Labor & Employment Law Daily Grossly excessive $2.6M compensatory damages award on ADA claim gets Volvo a new trial on USERRA claim
Monday, October 21, 2019

Grossly excessive $2.6M compensatory damages award on ADA claim gets Volvo a new trial on USERRA claim

By Kathleen Kapusta, J.D.

No rational jury could have rendered the verdict reached by the jury here, said the court, noting this was not a case where the evidence was sharply in conflict.

Addressing Volvo’s post-trial motions after a jury found in favor of its former employee on her ADA and USERRA claims, awarding her $2.6M in compensatory damages and $5.2M in punitive damages on her ADA discrimination claim (the court previously reduced the $2.6M award to $300K and vacated the $5.2M award), a federal court in Illinois entered judgment as a matter of law in favor of Volvo on the employee’s ADA discrimination claim and granted a new trial on her USERRA claim. Although the company was not entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the USERRA claim, the jury’s verdict on that claim, said the court, was against the manifest weight of the evidence (Arroyo v. Volvo Group America, LLC dba Volvo Parts North America, September 30, 2019, Dow, R., Jr.).

Shortly after the employee began working as a material handler at Volvo’s Joliet, Illinois, plant, she told a supervisor and HR that she needed time off work to travel to and from Fort Benning, Georgia, for her Army Reserve duties. Her supervisors, in email discussions with each other, questioned why she needed additional travel time and whether Volvo was required to provide it. At one point, after deciding that they did not have to grant her travel time, one supervisor wrote “LuzMaria will challenge us.”

PTSD. During her six years of employment, the employee was deployed twice to Iraq. Four months after she returned from her second deployment, which lasted 16 months, she sent an email declaring that she had a doctor’s note stating no work for a week due to stress and panic attacks. Upon receiving the email, her supervisors discussed disciplining her for her subsequent absences; one absence that was initially categorized an unexcused was later changed to excused. That same month, she was treated for PTSD and was formally diagnosed with the condition a month later.

Attendance policy violations. Around this same time, the employee began occurring points under Volvo’s attendance policy, and at one point, she received a three-day disciplinary suspension. Tensions between the employee and her supervisors also increased and she started telling them they were not following the law. When the employee was told that she could not park in the back of the building for safety reasons, she continued to park in the back, go to a meditation room she’d been allowed to use for her PTSD, and wait until the bell rang before leaving the room to move her car to a different part of the lot.

Start time rule. Although she was told her use of the meditation room did not negate her obligation to be prepared to start work when the bell rang, she continued this practice for several days, incurring points for violating the start-time rule requiring employees to be in the building ready to start work when the bell rang. She was ultimately terminated for incurring too many occurrence points under the attendance policy.

Prior proceedings. The employee sued under Title VII, the ADA, and USERRA, and the court granted summary judgment against all claims. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit reversed as to her USERRA and ADA discrimination claims. After a trial, the jury awarded her $2,600,000 in compensatory damages and $5,200,000 in punitive damages on her ADA claim. Applying the ADA’s statutory cap, the court reduced the compensatory damages to $300,000 and vacated the punitive damages award. Volvo moved for judgment as a matter of law or for a new trial and the employee moved to alter judgment.

USERRA liability. On this claim, the jury found the employee proved her service was a motivating factor in her termination and Volvo failed to prove it would have taken the same action regardless. Further, the Seventh Circuit had previously concluded that a reasonable jury could infer Volvo was motivated at least in part by anti-military animus toward the employee. Here, the employee presented the emails between her supervisors indicating they were frustrated by her taking time off before and after her military drills to travel to Fort Benning. They questioned her need for additional time, incorrectly determined they did not need to provide her with additional time, and assumed she would challenge them.

While Volvo argued that the emails were not sent close in time to her termination, she also provided an email from the date she was terminated in which her supervisor stated, “she clearly shows her intent to do everything possible to delay and waste company time” and also admitted “some level of frustration” with the employee. In addition, she presented an email from another supervisor stating that the employee was “becoming a pain” after she forwarded materials regarding Volvo’s obligations under USERRA. While her case was “by no means overwhelming or even strong,” there was sufficient evidence for a jury to find animus toward the employee’s military service.

Affirmative defense. Although Volvo argued it established it would have terminated her regardless of her military service because it uniformly enforced its attendance policy, the Seventh Circuit had found insufficient evidence to establish as a matter of law that it would necessarily have terminated her for her tardiness. Assuming the Seventh Circuit considered all the evidence before it, the court found Volvo did not establish its affirmative defense as a matter of law.

Willfulness. As to Volvo’s assertion that the employee failed to show its decision to terminate her was a willful violation of USERRA, the court noted that her theory of the case, which was credited by the jury, was that her military service was a motivating factor in her termination. Denying Volvo’s motion for judgment as a matter of law on her USERRA claim, the court noted that Volvo’s decisionmakers either knew this was a violation of USERRA or showed reckless disregard for the matter of whether its conduct was prohibited by USERRA.

ADA liability. Turning to Volvo’s liability under the ADA, the court pointed out that it had previously concluded the employee was not a qualified individual because of her unexcused tardies and absences; that part of its decision was left undisturbed by the Seventh Circuit. While the employee argued Volvo was satisfied with her performance, she was not terminated for performance issues but because of her attendance.

Also rejected was the employee’s assertion that under USERRA, Volvo had a duty to place her in another position or train her to be qualified for the position she held. She failed, however, to cite to any cases indicating that a violation of the USERRA provisions she cited could serve as a basis for establishing the “qualified individual” element of an ADA claim.

And while she also argued that for the last two attendance policy violations she was actually punched in early and so was not tardy, the attendance policy required that employees be in the building ready to work at the scheduled time, and the employee left the building when the bell rang to move her car; thus she could not show she was complying with the policy. Accordingly, the court granted judgment as a matter of law to Volvo on her ADA discrimination claim.

Compensatory damages under the ADA. Arguing that the employee failed to present any evidence of emotional stress or other compensatory damages stemming from her termination, Volvo also moved for judgment as a matter of law on compensatory damages under the ADA. Noting that all the evidence identified by the employee predated her termination, the court explained that if it were not granting Volvo’s judgment as a matter of law on the discrimination claim, it would grant the motion on the issue of compensatory damages.

New trial. Volvo also moved for a new trial based on the jury’s damages award on the employee’s ADA claim and its finding of willfulness under USERRA. While the court found the jury’s finding of willfulness under USERRA was supported by the evidence, it agreed that the jury’s award of $2.6 million in compensatory damages was not. And although it again noted that it was granting Volvo’s motion for judgment as a matter of law on the employee’s ADA claim, the court pointed out that the jury’s damages award on that claim raised significant concerns about the soundness of its verdict. The issue before it, said the court, was whether the jury’s verdict was rationally related to the challenged conduct and it could not say so with respect to the jury’s damages award on the ADA claim.

Even though the employee failed to present any evidence on compensatory damages supporting her ADA claim, the jury awarded her $2.6 million in compensatory damages alone, which “dwarfs the amount of compensatory damages awarded in cases in which the plaintiff actually presented evidence of compensatory damages.” Further, the employee only asked the jury to award $1 million total. Not only was the jury’s verdict not rationally related to the evidence presented at trial, it was irrational, said the court.

Grossly excessive. Noting that where a jury’s damages award is the product of passion and prejudice and/or is grossly excessive, a new trial should be granted on both liability and damages, the court found that here, a new trial on the employee’s USERRA claim was warranted because of the jury’s grossly excessive and irrational verdict on her ADA claim.

Manifest weight of the evidence. As to Volvo’s contention that a new trial was warranted because the jury’s verdict was against the manifest weight of the evidence, the court found no rational jury could have rendered the verdict reached by the jury here. The evidence indicated that the attendance policy was uniformly enforced and there was nothing to suggest that other employees were not following the policy with respect to the start-time rule. Although the court found that Volvo was not entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the employee’s USERRA claim, the jury’s verdict with respect to that claim was against the manifest weight of the evidence and thus the court granted Volvo’s motion for a new trial on her USERRA claim.

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