Monday, June 28, 2010

Seventh Circuit Upholds Plaintiff's Title VII Victory

The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed a judgment awarded to a housekeeper who sued her former employer for retaliation after she complained about lewd comments and acts made to her by residents at a site she was responsible for cleaning. A discussion between the plaintiff and the employer ensued regarding the sexually harassing behavior of the residents' which led to the plaintiff leaving the workplace upset. The employer, in turn, terminated the employee claiming that she "walked off the job." The issue went to a jury which believed the plaintiff's version of events.

In affirming the lower court's decision, the Seventh Circuit held:

1. That it was unnecessary for the employee to establish the employer's liability for harassment in order to prove a claim of retaliation.

2. "The case came down to a choice between trusting Zeller or Pickett. If the jury favored Zeller's version of the events, it would have found that Pickett walked out on her job in violation of written policy after an entirely neutral conversation with her boss. As such, Sheridan would not be liable under Title VII because it fired the appellee for breaking the rules, not for protected expression. The trier of fact here chose to go the other way, but the this choice too was supported by the weight of the evidence. The jurors were entitled to believe Pickett's testimony."

3. "[T]he statement [in closing argument] 'you've got to send some message to this employer that they shouldn't do this kind of thing again'" was "not prejudicial; Title VII, a statute designed to prevent retaliatory firings, allows plaintiffs to recover damages precisely to deter employers from repeating infractions in the future."

4. "Sheridan's position that Pickett could not have established emotional distress without corroborating evidence from a third party finds no support in our precedent. . . . Pickett testified that she was very upset by how Sheridan treated her, felt embarrassed talking to her children, and nearly became homeless as a result of her discharge. This evidence is enough to support a jury award of $15,000, which is well within the $200,000 cap set out in 42 U.S.C. § 1981a(b)(3)(C) and the benchmarks set out by other improper termination cases."

5. Affirming the punitive damage award, the panel rejects an argument that the court "extend Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, 128 S. Ct. 2605 (2008), to mandate a one-to-one ratio between compensatory and punitive damages in this case. The logic of Baker does not apply to this Title VII case."

The case is Pickett v. Sheridan Health Care Center, No. 09-3028 (7th Cir. June 25, 2010). Hat tip: Daily Developments in EEO Law.

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