That time when Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett upheld a plaintiff’s $300K discrimination win

Welcome back to “Amy Coney Barrett Week” at The Employer Handbook.

I’m devoting five blog posts to some of her most significant employment law decisions so that, maybe, we can read the tea leaves to see how she may rule from the Supreme Court bench if the Senate confirms her nomination.

Yesterday, we examined one of Judge Barrett’s opinions dealing with the Americans with Disabilities Act. In that case, the employer prevailed because the employee never told his employer that its proposed accommodation would violate his work restrictions. Consequently, there was no failure to accommodate.

Today, let’s see how Judge Barrett dealt with a jury verdict in the plaintiff’s favor on her national origin discrimination claim that the plaintiff brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. You can check out a copy of Judge Barrett’s opinion here.

A sham investigation leads to a heckuva jury verdict.

The plaintiff was (and still is) a Hispanic woman who started working for the defendant in 1987, got promoted in 2004 and then fired in 2012 for allegedly violating the employer’s employment Code of Conduct.

Specifically, the employer received two anonymous tips that the plaintiff was clocking in hours that she was not working. But, the court describes a ham-handed investigation in which the employer seemed to have pre-determined that the plaintiff engaged in theft of time, and didn’t place much (if any) value on the plaintiff’s side of the story. Ultimately, the defendant’s HR Manager recommended termination.

Plus, the HR Manager neither consulted with the plaintiff’s then-supervisor nor recommended any progressive discipline, both of which violated the collective bargaining agreement. Instead, she just recommended termination of employment. Then, after receiving the HR Manager’s recommendation, the HR Director briefly reviewed the investigative report and fired the plaintiff. But, according to the final termination letter, the defendant did not fire the plaintiff for theft of time; instead, the defendant fired her for eleven timesheet falsifications and for being untruthful during her Corrective Action Meetings.

The plaintiff sued for national origin discrimination, among other things. The jury found in her favor and awarded the plaintiff $750,000 in compensatory damages, which the district court reduced to $300,000, consistent with Title VII.

Judge Barrett affirms the $300K win.

On appeal, Judge Barrett noted that, in a Title VII case, all that matters is whether a reasonable juror could conclude that the plaintiff would have kept her job if she had a different ethnicity, and everything else had remained the same.

Judge Barrett also recognized that plaintiff does not need direct evidence of discrimination. It’s not as if HR will drop a truth bomb that the company is firing her because she is Hispanic. So, circumstantial evidence will generally suffice too.

Here, Judge Barrett was concerned that “[t]he jump straight to termination was not only in tension with [the plaintiff’s] long, favorable record, it violated multiple union commitments. That in itself was important evidence because significant, unexplained or systematic deviations from established policies or practices can be probative of discriminatory intent.”

(Citing the Supreme Court’s “cat’s paw” decision in Staub v. Proctor Hosp., Judge Barrett brushed aside the employer’s argument that there could not have been any discrimination because the final decisionmaker did not participate in the underlying investigation.)

Plus, there was that shoddy investigation, and the jury also heard evidence about how the employer mistreated other Hispanic employees. Notably, the plaintiff introduced data showing that no Caucasian supervisors were fired between 2005 and 2012, while the defendant did fire 17.6% of the defendant’s Hispanic park supervisors during that same period.

Put it all together, and the jury verdict stands. Plaintiff wins!

Employer takeaways.

The newspaper headlines on Judge Barrett may indicate that she is a pro-business rubber stamp on employment law issues. Don’t believe everything that you read. The two cases we’ve discussed here show that she applies the law faithfully and reasonably and, each time, the litigant with the better case prevailed.

Come on back tomorrow as we explore more employment law jurisprudence from Judge Barrett.

“Doing What’s Right – Not Just What’s Legal”
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