8th Circuit Affirms Plaintiff's Verdict in Age Discrimination Case

8th Circuit Affirms Plaintiff's Verdict in Age Discrimination Case

Employees can face discrimination in many ways, including age discrimination. The Missouri Human Rights Act (MHRA) protects employees in Missouri from age discrimination. In a recent decision, Trickey v. Kaman Industrial Technologies, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes Missouri and other states in the Midwest) affirmed a trial court judgment of $760,000 for a plaintiff in an age discrimination lawsuit.

In Trickey, the Plaintiff James Trickey was hired as a branch manager of the Defendant's Cape Girardeau, Missouri office in May 2000. He was 57 years old when he was hired. Trickey received numerous awards while employed by Kaman, including a leadership award in 2005. In 2006, Kaman tasked Trickey to simultaneously manage two separate branches of the company. In 2007, his annual performance review indicated that he had exceeded expectations every year he worked there.

In the Summer of 2007, Trickey (age 64 at the time) was repeatedly told by Kama management that 59 was the average age of management at the time of retirement and that they needed to "get some new blood in [the branch]." The same person that told Trickey these things, Mr. Caputo, also told him that people in the branch didn't support him, and suggested he seek professional help for depression. Trickey disagreed, and said the branch was doing just fine.

A few months later, Caputo sent a letter to a Human Resources representative of Kaman and expressed concern with Trickey's performance as the branch manager. He never mentioned that the performance of the branch was rated as excellent, and he never let Trickey see the letter or respond to it.

In December 2007, Caputo completed a performance review for Trickey, and gave him an "overall rating" of "Needs Improvement". Caputo then implemented a performance improvement plan (PIP) for Trickey. Trickey's performance was criticized despite the fact that Trickey's branch team's performance was rated as "Exceeding Expectations." In past years' performance reviews, Trickey's skills and abilities had always met or exceeded expectations. Trickey had to do many things to satisfy his PIP. He agreed to meet the new expectations Kaman had set for him and was required to acknowledge that if he didn't in 90 days, termination could occur.

In January 2008, Trickey sent a written rebuttal of Caputo's negative performance review to the vice president of human resources, Bob Goff, and to the company president, Jack Cahill. Trickey addressed some of the concerns Caputo had, but he never received a response to the letter. One of his main complaints was that he was short staffed at his branch. Caputo never adjusted personnel at his branch to assist Trickey in meeting his new expectations.

Trickey ultimately concluded that Kaman was trying to oust him as branch manager, as Trickey had just turned 65 a few months prior. On January 18, 2008 Trickey had a conversation with Goff, in which Goff told Trickey that Caputo had lost confidence in him. Trickey expressed many other concerns he had with his situation, and at one point Goff told Trickey to retire if he wanted. Trickey told Goff he did not want to retire yet because he had a good branch.

The very next day, Trickey sent Goff an email outlining his feelings that he was "being single[d] out and discriminated against due [his] age." He then asked for the company policy and advice on how he should proceeds with his complaint. Two days later, Goff called Trickey and assured him that no discrimination was going on. Goff offered Trickey three months of severance pay. Trickey asked for a year of severance pay, and Goff countered by offering five months' severance pay. Trickey rejected the offer.

On January 26, 2008 Trickey filed a charge of age discrimination and retaliation with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights (MCHR). Nine days later, on February 4, 2008, Trickey was demoted. Caputo was named as acting branch manager.

On May 8, 2008, after a few months of additional disputes concerning his work and responsibilities, Caputo requested Trickey's presence in the office. Tricky believed he was going to be fired; Goff and Caputo were both present. Goff told Trickey that he was being put indefinite suspension, as he had not been performing properly. Trickey was given a letter explaining the suspension, which outlined general corrective-action reports, and a general release and agreement. During Goff's deposition, he explained that Higgins (Trickey's thought to be successor) was the one who observed the behavior described in the report. Tricky refused to sign the release, and he was suspended without pay. He remained on unpaid suspension until mediation efforts had failed. Kaman eventually terminated Trickey in June of 2010.

In February 2009, Trickey filed suit in Missouri state court asserting claims of age discrimination and retaliation under the MHRA. Kaman removed the suit to federal court. After a five-day jury trial, the jury rendered a verdict for Trickey, as follows: $160,000 on the age discrimination claim; $100,000 for the retaliation claim; and $500,000 in punitive damages. Also, following the trial, the court awarded Trickey attorney's fees in the amount of $201,375.50. Kaman appealed the jury's verdict on the meits; Trickey cross-appealed, arguing that the award of attorneys' fees should have been higher and based on St. Louis market rates rather than Cape Girardeau market rates.

Kaman raised a number of arguments on appeal. First, it argued that there was insufficient evidence to support an award of $500,000 for punitive damages. The Eighth Circuit disagreed, and held that Trickey had "made a submissible case for punitive damages by providing clear and convincing proof from which a reasonable fact-finder [could] conclude that [Kaman] acted with evil motive or reckless indifference when it retaliated against [Trickey]." Second, Kaman also argued that the punitive damage award violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court disagreed, finding that the award "does not shock the conscious" and "did not violate due process." Third, Kaman argued that the trial court erred in refusing to grant a new trial because: (1) alleged hearsay evidence was improperly admitted; and (2) the court failed to apply the appropriate new-trial standard. The Eighth Circuit rejected these arguments as well.

In ruling on the issue of the proper rates for attorney's fees, the Eighth Circuit held that Rule 59(e) was not the proper vehicle to challenge the attorneys' fee award; but the court did not articulate the proper procedure for challenging the amount of the attorneys' fees award.

As is evident from Trickey, employers cannot discriminate against employees based on age. If you believe your employer has violated your rights or has fired you unfairly due to your age, or if you want to learn more about your rights, you should contact a St. Louis Employment Lawyer.

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