May, 2011 Issue of Legal Trends
In this issue of Legal Trends, we dissect two new Supreme Court opinions which will have a huge impact on future employment cases. We also analyze the latest developments in Cook County personal injury litigation.
Supreme Court Expands Employer Liability In Discrimination Cases.
Miriam Regalado and Eric Thompson were formerly employed by North American Stainless. Thompson was the fiancée of Regalado. Regalado filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC alleging that she had been discriminated against. In February, 2003, the EEOC notified North American about Regalado’s charge. Three weeks later, the company fired Thompson.
Thompson then filed his own charge with the EEOC. Thompson later filed suit in federal court alleging that North American retaliated against him because Regalado filed a charge with the EEOC. A federal court in Kentucky threw out Thompson’s case, stating that federal law did not permit third party retaliation claims. Thompson, not satisfied with the court’s decision, appealed. The federal appellate court sided with the trial judge, reasoning that Thompson did not engage in any protected activity himself, typically a requirement to maintain a retaliation case.
The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. On January, 24, 2011, the high court reversed the appeals court, and said that Thompson could take his retaliation claim to a jury trial. In reaching its decision, the court had to confront two questions: 1) did North American’s termination of Thompson constitute unlawful retaliation? And, if so, 2) did the law permit Thompson the ability to pursue a claim? The Court had little trouble addressing the first question. It found that Title VII, the federal statute governing many discrimination claims, contained broad anti-retaliation provisions. The Court stated that, “We think it obvious that a reasonable worker might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew that her fiancé would be fired.” The company argued that allowing the claim to go forward would subject employers to broad liability if a terminated employee had any connection to the employee who filed a charge with the EEOC. The Supreme Court, however, refused to draw any categorical lines.
Regarding the second question that the Court had to face, it concluded that Thompson fell within the “zone of interests” protected by federal law. We expect to see many more cases of this nature, and anticipate that the courts will expand retaliation claims under the age and disability discrimination laws.
Supreme Court Refines Law As to Employer Liability
A perplexing factual scenario has confounded courts across the country in recent years concerning employment claims. An employee may claim that she was discharged because her employer harbored prejudice against her. The employer counters that the particular supervisor who allegedly harbored the racist beliefs had nothing to do with the termination of the employee; rather, another manager made the decision. When the employee seeks to hold the employer accountable for the prejudice of a supervisor who did not make the ultimate employment decision, the courts refer to these claims as a “cat’s paw” case.
Until very recently, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal appellate court which defines the federal law for Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, held that in order for an employee to successfully establish a cat’s paw case, he would have to show that the prejudiced supervisor had a “singular influence” over the manager who made the ultimate employment decision. Usually, this presented an insurmountable bar for the employee. Because the employee could not meet this high hurdle, trial judges would often dismiss these employment claims.
On March 1, 2011, the Supreme Court decided the case of Staub v. Proctor Hospital, and held that if a manager performs an act motivated by a prejudiced supervisor, and that supervisor intends to cause the employee harm, and the employee does suffer harm, then the employer can be held liable.
These are the facts in the case. Vincent Staub worked as an angiography technician for Proctor Hospital until 2004, when he was fired. While employed by the hospital, Staub was a member of the United States Army Reserve, which required him to attend drill one weekend per month and train full time for two to three weeks per year. Both Janice Mulally, Staub’s immediate supervisor, and Michael Korenchuk, Mullay’s manager, were hostile to Staub’s military obligations.
Mulally scheduled Staub for additional shifts without notice so that he would “pay back the department for everyone else having to bend over backwards to cover his schedule for the Reserves.” Mulally also told Staub’s co-worker, Leslie Sweborg, that Staub’s “military duty had been a strain on the department,” and asked Sweborg to help her “get rid of him.”
In January, 2004, Mulally took disciplinary action against Staub, which Staub claimed had no factual basis. The company placed Staub on a Corrective Action. Korenchuk then claimed that Staub violated the Corrective Action plan, and advised Linda Buck, the Vice-President of Human Resources about Staub’s alleged violation. Buck relied heavily upon Korenchuk’s accusation and terminated Staub.
Staub filed suit, claiming a violation of federal law. A jury found in his favor, but the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. The high court, however, found in Staub’s favor, reasoning that Mulally and Korenchuk acted within the scope of their employment and were causal factors in Staub’s discharge. We expect that this opinion will be applied broadly to many other federal employment laws.
Cook County Jury Verdict Reporter Notes Significant Downturn in Plaintiff’s Verdicts.
According to a recent study by the Cook County Jury Verdict Reporter, a publication which tracks jury verdicts in Illinois, the number of jury verdicts returned in favor of Plaintiffs is sharply down in Cook County. For the past five years, juries returned verdicts for Plaintiffs ranging from a low of 47.3% to a high of 54.9% for all types of personal injury cases. For the period of September, 2008, through March, 2009, the total number of Plaintiff jury verdicts dropped to 37.6%. In the collar counties, however, juries returned verdicts for Plaintiffs 52.2% of the time.
These statistics are surprising to trial lawyers, who view Cook County as one of the most friendly venues to bring personal injury cases. Medical malpractice verdicts have also dropped considerably. In the 2003-2004 time frame, Cook County juries returned verdicts for Plaintiffs 31.3% of the time. During the most recent tracking period, that number has dropped to 24.2%.
What accounts for the sudden drop? While no one can say for sure, some attorneys attribute it to the difficult economic times. Other attorneys claim that it is due to the defense bar’s efforts at tort reform. Regardless, it definitely is a factor for Plaintiff’s attorneys to consider whether to settle a case.
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