By Wayne D. Garris Jr., J.D.
The employee was involved in a relationship with, and later married, a male plant manager who received a promotion despite them both violating the employer’s anti-fraternization policy.
A federal district court in Alabama denied Koch Foods’ motion for judgment as a matter of law on an employee’s Title VII claim after a jury found sex was the motivating factor in its decision not to promote the former HR manager who had married a coworker in violation of the company’s anti-fraternization policy. Although the employee’s husband also violated the anti-fraternization policy, he was selected for a promotion by the employer’s HR director, who was also a decisionmaker in the employee’s nonselection. The court granted in part and denied in part Koch’s motion for remittitur, however, finding that the backpay award of $262,000 exceeded what the jury could award since it concluded that the employee’s termination 10 days after the marriage was not discriminatory (Collins v. Koch Foods Inc., April 10, 2020, Axon, A.).
Company structure. The employer’s chicken processing complex in Montgomery, Alabama, consisted of a processing plant and a debone plant. Each plant had its own HR manager and plant manager. The processing plant’s manager reported to the complex plant manager and the debone plant’s manager reported to a corporate vice president. The HR managers for both plants reported to a complex HR manager who reported to the HR director.
Promotion. The employee worked as the HR manager for the processing plant. She had been dating the processing plant manager for several years and in 2016, the two employees became engaged. In August 2016, the employee applied for the vacant complex HR manager position. While the position was still open, the HR director and complex manager learned the employee and processing plant manager were romantically involved and engaged. The employee was not selected for the promotion and the HR director transferred her to be the HR manager at the debone plant in order to avoid a conflict of interest.
New policy. Koch subsequently hired a male applicant to fill the complex HR manager position. The HR director also revised the company’s anti-fraternization policy to prohibit any HR employee from having an intimate relationship with any employee working in the same facility or complex. According to Koch, the processing and debone plants were part of the same complex so the employee’s transfer did not cure her violation, but it cured any potential conflict of interest.
Merger. Several months later, Koch began the process of merging the two plants into a single campus. As part of this plan, management decided to promote the processing plant manager so that he would manage both plants. Neither the employee nor the processing plant manager was aware of management’s plans to promote him.
Second chance. Around the same time, the employee learned that the complex HR manager was being promoted and she met with the HR director and expressed her interest in the vacancy. According to the employee, the HR Director never mentioned the anti-fraternization policy, a conflict of interest, or her lack of qualifications for the position. While her application was pending, Koch formalized the processing plant manager’s promotion but did not inform him. Several weeks later, the employee and the plant manager were married.
The employee was not selected for an interview. The complex HR manager testified that her relationship with the plant manager was “part of the reason” he declined to interview her. Ten days after the wedding, the employee was fired for violating the revised anti-fraternization policy. She filed suit alleging that Koch failed to promote her and terminated her because of her sex in violation of Title VII. A jury found that her “sex was the only motivating factor behind [the employer’s] failure to promote her, but that her termination was not discriminatory” and awarded her $262,000 in back pay. The employer moved for judgment as a matter of law or, in the alternative remittitur.
Mixed motive. Koch argued that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law because the employee failed to prove that her sex motivated its decision not to promote her and that it proved it would have made the same decision regardless of her sex.
Motivated by sex. The court noted that the employee and the plant manager “violated the same anti-fraternization policy and their relationship created the same conflict of interest.” Nevertheless, the employer determined that the conflict precluded only the employee from being promoted, not her husband. Further, the HR director was a decisionmaker in both promotion decisions. Although the employer presented evidence that it believed the plant manager was an especially valuable employee, the employee also put forth evidence to show that until she applied for the promotion, the employer considered her a valuable employee as well. Based on the difference in treatment, said the court, a reasonable jury could find that sex was a motivating factor in the failure to promote.
Same decision. Next, the employer argued that it would have made the same decision regardless of the employee’s sex. The court noted that the “same-decision” defense does not preclude a finding of liability, but merely protects the employer from the imposition of monetary damages. Nonetheless, the court found the employer failed to establish the defense. The employee had already established that at least one decisionmaker was involved in both decisions. The HR director promoted the employee’s husband despite a conflict of interest while arguing that he could not promote the employee due to the same conflict. A jury would have sufficient reason to disbelieve the employer’s stated reasons for its actions, the court concluded.
Further, a reasonable jury could also disbelieve the HR complex manager’s testimony that he didn’t think the employee was ready for a senior level HR position. During his deposition, he did not give her lack of qualifications as a reason for declining to interview her and only mentioned her relationship with the plant manager.
Remittitur. Turning to the employer’s motion for remittitur, the issue was whether an employer’s nondiscriminatory termination of employment cuts off the accumulation of back pay after a discriminatory failure to promote. Citing the Eleventh Circuit’s holdings in Archambault v. United Computing Systems, Inc. and Walker v. Ford Motor Co., the court held that the employee’s accrual of back pay “must stop on the date of a non-discriminatory, albeit involuntary, termination of employment.” Because Koch was successful against the employee’s termination claim, the employee was only entitled to back pay from the day she applied for the promotion to the day of her termination, which was approximately one month. Thus, the court reduced her backpay award from $262,000 to $10,853.
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