Employee Rights Short Takes: Race Discrimination, 5.8 Milllion Dollar Verdict, Breach of Contract Damages And More

Here are a few short takes about some employment cases worth noting this month:

EEOC Files Lawsuit Against Kaplan Higher Education Corp. Claiming Race Discrimination

The EEOC announced last week that it filed a class action race discrimination case against Kaplan Higher Education Corp. The suit alleges that since at least 2008, Kaplan rejected applicants based on their credit history and that this practice has an unlawful discriminatory impact because of race. The EEOC further claims that the practice is neither job-related nor justified by business necessity and therefore violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

These kinds of discrimination lawsuits are known as “disparate impact” cases and are often the legal foundation upon which class action discrimination cases are premised. The claim arises when an employer’s practice or policy, though neutral on its face, has a disparate impact on a group which is protected under one or more of  the civil rights statutes. For more about disparate impact cases, see here.

There has been much discussion about the use of credit history as a prerequisite for hiring and its disparate impact on minorities though we haven’t seen many lawsuits challenging the practice.

It will be interesting to follow this litigation and see how Kaplan justifies its policy to check credit history as a job related business necessity. The outcome of this litigation could have a significant impact on future higher practices nationwide. For more about the case, read the NY Times article here.

El Paso Employee Wins 5.8 Million Dollar Discrimination Verdict

An El Paso, Texas jury awarded Mark Duncan, a white benefits supervisor, 5.8 million dollars in a discrimination case against his former employer, El Paso Electric.

According to the El Paso Times, Duncan worked for El Paso Electric for six years and had a good employment history with no record of discipline. He was fired in December of 2007 after his life was threatened during an altercation with a company human resources manager.

 Even though Duncan was cleared of any wrongdoing the company fired him along with the human resource manager.

Duncan claimed he was fired because the company feared a lawsuit from the Hispanic human resource manager and that it got rid of him ("the white guy") to create a defense.

The jury agreed with Duncan and awarded him $129,913 in past lost wages; $699,196 in future lost earnings; $5000 in compensatory damages; and 5 million in punitive damages. El Paso Electric plans to file motions to set aside and reduce the verdict according to newspaper reports.

It certainly looks like whoever made the decision to fire Duncan either forgot or didn’t know that white employees can be victims of race discrimination too.

Two Decisions Worth Noting

In Helpin v.Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania addressed an issue of damages which can be very helpful to other employees down the road.

Mark Helpin, a dentist and professor, won a lawsuit for breach of contract against the University of Pennsylvania and an award of over four million dollars.

Helpin claimed that he was constructively discharged without “just cause” in violation of his contract and that Penn had improperly failed to continue to pay him 50% of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia dental clinic profits to which he was entitled. In a great discussion of future earnings, lost business profits, and the propriety of the “total offset approach” to the calculation of those damages, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the award.

Under the total offset approach, it is assumed that the effect of the future inflation rate will completely offset the interest rate, thereby eliminating the need to discount an award to present value. It has been adopted by some, but not most courts, but I expect so see more of its application in opinions to come.

For anyone involved in a case with a large future damages component, this opinion is both interesting and important and one worth sharing with any expert economists prior to his or her testimony.

In Quinlan v. Curtisss-Wright Corp. the New Jersey Supreme Court issued an extremely important and helpful decision which addresses the situation in which an employee takes company documents which bolster his or her  discrimination claim.

Joyce Quinlan was the Executive Director of Human Resources for Curtiss-Wright. She filed a lawsuit claiming that she was passed over for a promotion because of gender discrimination.

Quinlan copied files -- over 1800 documents -- which supported her claim and gave them to her lawyers.

The company found out during discovery in her pending case  that she copied the documents and and fired her (although it did not fire her right away). It claimed that she stole company property in violation of the company's code of conduct and therefore the discharge was justified.

Quinlian amended her lawsuit to add a retaliation claim. The case was tried and the jury awarded her more that 5.4 million dollars in compensatory damages and over 4.5 million dollars in punitive damages.

The case went to New Jersey Supreme Court which ruled in her favor this month. It upheld the trial court’s determination that Quinlan’s copying and retaining the company’s documents was not “protected conduct” and affirmed the jury’s finding that her firing was retaliatory.

In line with several federal court decisions, it adopted a “flexible totality of the circumstances approach” which sets forth seven factors to be considered in determining whether an employee is permitted to take and use documents belonging to his or her employer.

While this is a very good decision for employees, those who feel their employment rights may have been violated still need to be very cautious about taking company documents in violation of a company policy, even if the documents bolster their claims.  The law is tricky and changing, and it's  best to seek counsel and get advice before it’s too late.

Both of these cases represent significant victories for the the plaintiffs and their lawyers.

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