It’s not often that we see a case in which the verdict for the employer is reversed in favor of the employee because the judge improperly excluded evidence — but that’s exactly what happened in the case of Cobbins v. Tennessee Department of Transportation . Here’s the story:
The plaintiff, Greg Cobbins, an African-American was employed by the Tennessee Department of Transportation (“TDOT”) since 1994.
In 2005 Cobbins became eligible for a promotion for which he was qualified. He was considered along with another candidate ( white male) named Bradford Staggs.
Staggs got the job instead of Cobbins. Cobbins believed he was discriminated against and filed a lawsuit.
Part of the reason stated for the decision to choose Staggs over Cobbins, according to the Regional Director of TDOT, was that Cobbins had “less education” and “several oral and written warnings in his work file”.
The most common way that discrimination cases are proven is with circumstantial evidence showing that the reasons given for the adverse employment decision are not valid, not credible, or not believable — it’s called pretext.
During the trial, when Cobbins attempted to offer his evidence of pretext as to the reasons stated for the denial of his promotion, the judge refused to allow it:
- “Less education“: Cobbins had evidence that Staggs lied about his education on his promotion application. Staggs’ application stated that he had “postsecondary education after high school” during the years 1991-1995. It turns out that Stagss didn’t even graduate from high school until 1995 so the statement could not have been true.
The trial court judge refused to allow Cobbins to introduce the evidence showing that Staggs had lied about his education.
- “Several oral and written warnings in his work file“: Cobbins did have several warnings in his file. However, Cobbins had evidence that his former supervisor, Wayne Youcum, was biased and discriminated against him. Several years earlier, Cobbins charged Yocum with discrimination and Yocum retaliated by:
- marring Cobbins work record with unfounded complaints,
- refusing to give Cobbins supervisory responsibilities, and
- treating him more harshly than the white employees.
- The first lawsuit over Yocum’s conduct was dismissed because Cobbins failed to file a brief on time. (Cobbins blamed the new electronic filing system of the court for the failure to process the brief )
- The important point is that the previous case was never decided “on the merits” but rather was dismissed due to a technical matter.
The trial court judge refused to allow Cobbins to introduce evidence showing that the warnings in his file were prompted by his former supervisor’s discriminatory motives.
Not surprisingly, without some of his strongest evidence, Cobbins lost his trial. He filed an appeal on the grounds that that the trial court committed reversible error when it excluded his evidence.
On April 2nd, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found in his favor, reversed the lower court, and gave Cobbins the right to a new trial.
In his appeal, Cobbins claimed that his case was greatly harmed by his inability to enter Staggs’ allegedly false promotion application into the record. The Court agreed:
The district court erred in refusing to allow plaintiff to introduce into the record the employment application of a co- worker. The document, if hearsay at all, falls within the exception for business records and possibly public records as well . . and should have been admissible. . .
With respect to the warnings in the file, the Court had this to say:
On appeal, plaintiff argues that the trial court committed reversible error by excluding evidence of his former supervisor’s “discriminatory animus and motive” toward African-Americans. Plaintiff argues that this disparate treatment in discipline by his former supervisor is relevant in the current proceeding because Youcum’s conduct marred his work record and his opportunity for promotion.
Plaintiff is not seeking to relitigate the claims from his earlier suit. Plaintiff seeks only to demonstrate that certain conduct and actions of his supervisor at that time impacted his work record and promotion chances; and such evidence is, therefore, relevant in this case.
We agree with Plaintiff. Contrary to defendant’s argument, collateral estoppel does not bar evidence of plaintiff’s former supervisor’s animus that may have adversely impacted his work record and chances for promotion because the judgment in the first lawsuit was not on the merits.
When you read the decision, you really have to wonder what the trial court judge was thinking. TDOT said it chose one employee over another because he had more eduction. TDOT’S own records showed that was false, yet the court would not allow the jury to see the evidence.
TDOT said that one employee was chosen over another because of warnings in a personnel file. TDOT’s own records showed that a previous discrimination and retaliation charge had been filed against that supervisor. Yet once again, the judge would not let the jury hear the evidence.
I wrote an article about the bias of the federal bench a little while ago and the difficulty that employees who bring discrimination cases have in the federal courts in this country. This case is a perfect example.
Although the ending is a good one in that the district court judge was properly reversed, it certainly would have been nice — and certainly a whole lot more efficient — if the plaintiff got a fair trial the first time around.