Labor & Employment Law Daily Jury verdict in favor of fired Hispanic employee accused of time theft upheld
Friday, April 10, 2020

Jury verdict in favor of fired Hispanic employee accused of time theft upheld

By Marjorie Johnson, J.D.

However, the Chicago Park District was properly granted judgment as a matter of law on her parallel Sec. 1983 claim since the employee, who relied on “uninformative demographic data,” failed to demonstrate a widespread custom of discrimination.

The Seventh Circuit upheld a jury verdict in favor of a Hispanic employee on her Title VII claim asserting that the Chicago Park District (CPD) engaged in national origin discrimination when it ostensibly discharged her because she falsified her time records. The district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the employer’s motion for judgment as a matter law since there was enough evidence to allow the jury to find in her favor, including that the CPD violated multiple union commitments when it decided to “jump straight into termination” of a long-tenured employee with a favorable record, refused to hear her side of the story, and mistreated other Hispanic employees. Her remitted award of $300,000 in compensatory damages and court-ordered equitable damages were also upheld. But the appeals court denied the employee’s cross-appeal challenging the district court’s grant of judgment as a matter of law in the CPD’s favor on her Sec. 1983 claim (Vega v. Chicago Park District, April 7, 2020, Barrett, A.).

Accused of time theft. The employee was hired by the CPD in 1987 and in 2004 was promoted to the position of park supervisor. She worked without incident until September 2011, when two anonymous calls accused her of “theft of time” by clocking in hours that she had not worked. The CPD investigated, and over the course of 56 days, surveilled her over 252 times, including questioning her in front of her coworkers.

In March 2012, the investigators met with her and her union representative, who felt they were “dead set” on concluding that she violated the code of conduct. In late March, she took medical leave due to the significant anxiety the investigative process was causing her. Then in July and August she received two corrective action notices accusing her of engaging in timesheet falsification by not being present at her assigned location at the assigned time.

HR manager recommends firing. When the HR manager met with the employee and her union representative, he refused to listen to her explanations or review the documents she brought to dispute the allegations. He also disbelieved her Hispanic supervisor’s explanation that the employee may have been working from home on at least one of the occasions at issue. Convinced that the employee was guilty, the HR manager recommended that she be terminated. In doing so, he violated a union agreement by neither consulting with her supervisor nor recommending progressive discipline.

HR director rubber-stamps. After receiving the HR manager’s recommendation and barely reviewing the investigative report, the HR director discharged the employee. Her termination letter stated that she was being fired for 11 timesheet falsifications and being untruthful during her corrective action meetings. In violation of the union contract, the CPD did not offer her union a pre-disciplinary agreement. On appeal, the personnel board upheld her termination.

Jury verdict. After a 17-day trial, a jury returned a verdict in favor of the employee on her Title VII and Sec. 1983 claims of national origin discrimination, awarding her $750,000 in compensatory damages. The district court subsequently granted the CPD’s motion for judgment as a matter of law on her Sec. 1983 claim, denied the motion on her Title VII claim, and remitted her compensatory damages award to the Title VII statutory maximum of $300,000. After a bench trial on equitable remedies, the court ordered her reinstatement as well as over $160,000 in lost backpay and benefits. It also awarded a tax-component award of over $55,000.

Deviation from policy. In ruling that the employee presented enough evidence to allow the jury to find in her favor on her Title VII claim, the Seventh Circuit noted the CPD’s decision to “jump straight into termination” of a 20-year employee who had been promoted multiple times, in violation of multiple union commitments. Such deviations from established policies or practices can be probative of discriminatory intent.

Evidence of pretext. The record also indicated that the investigators made numerous material errors. For instance, the employee introduced evidence that she was not driving her usual vehicle—which was being surveilled—on two of the eleven days on which she supposedly falsified her timesheets. She also testified that she was present at the park on the occasion in question but was late because she found a dead body at the park earlier that morning. Such “flagrant inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the employer’s supposed reason” for firing an employee can demonstrate pretext, and the CPD’s lack of interest in her side of the story was similarly significant.

Other evidence of bias. The jury could have also inferred discrimination based on evidence that the CPD mistreated other Hispanic employees. Her supervisor testified that she was assigned to “rough” parks on purpose, while another Hispanic colleague stated that she retired from her 35-year career after a police officer told her that CPD investigators were watching her and her staff. There was also evidence that the CPD disciplined Hispanics more harshly than other groups, including data showing that no Caucasian park supervisors were fired from 2005 to 2012, as compared to 17.6 percent of the Hispanic park supervisors. The investigation into her alleged falsification of timesheets also appeared to have been disproportionably aggressive.

“Tainted” by animus. The CPD also argued that the employee failed to show a causal link since neither the HR director nor the personnel board harbored discriminatory animus. Finding this argument “confusing and underdeveloped,” the Seventh Circuit explained that regardless of whether either were the “final decisionmaker,” at issue was whether the discriminatory animus of the investigators and the HR manager was a proximate cause of the termination decision. Here, there was no evidence that the board’s review was “entirely untainted.” Moreover, the jury could have reasonably concluded that the HR director’s review was too superficial to constitute “a meaningful and independent investigation.”

Damages award not excessive. The Seventh Circuit also rejected the CPD’s contention that the original $750,000 award for compensatory damages should have been remitted to less than the Title VII’s statutory maximum. The employee testified extensively about the mental and physical distress that she suffered for her final six months of employment and during the period she was unemployed. While $300,000 was “undoubtedly generous,” it was “rationally related to this testimony and is not monstrously excessive” and sufficiently comparable to similar cases.

Mitigation. The employee’s backpay award was also upheld despite the CPD’s contention that she failed to mitigate her damages by searching for comparable employment in her field. The district court properly found that she exercised reasonable diligence by applying for over 100 jobs, many of which involved working with youth or otherwise engaging with the community. And the CPD provided scant evidence that she would have been successful in obtaining a sufficiently comparable job in the narrower field even if she had tried.

Tax-component award flawed. However, the district court abused its discretion in awarding a $55,925 tax component since it offered no explanation for its calculation. Though the employee attempted to justify the figure by referencing some of her submissions to the district court, the appeals court was unable to readily discern whether the calculation was accurate and therefore vacated the award and remanded for the district court to “show its work.”

No widespread custom of discrimination. The Seventh Circuit also affirmed the judgment as a matter of law to the CPD on the employee’s Sec. 1983 claim, ruling that she failed to show a widespread custom of discrimination against Hispanics. In arguing that there was a low percentage of Hispanics in certain departments, she relied on “uninformative demographic data” that lacked critical context, such as the ratio of qualified Hispanics who actually applied, and a comparison to data in the 2010 U.S. Census was similarly ineffective. And while her Hispanic supervisor and another Hispanic peer also testified that they were treated poorly compared to their non-Hispanic counterparts, “a handful of instances does not itself demonstrate a well-settled practice.”

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