Judge Barrett on Employment Law III

Before reading this summary, please read the overview for context.

Vega v. Chicago Park District (2020)

In 2011, Lydia Vega had worked for the Chicago Park District for almost 25 years and had held the position of park supervisor for seven. [2] Then, one or two anonymous individuals reported to the Park District that Ms. Vega had been reporting longer hours than she actually worked. One investigator began to track Vega’s car, another investigated Vega herself, and both interfered with her work (often interrogating her in front of her colleagues). [2-3] This surveillance was far more severe than that endured by other Park District employees who had been accused of similar wrongdoing. Vega was Hispanic and those employees were not. [8]

In March 2012, almost six months after her ordeal began, Vega’s union representative met with the investigators. Vega and her representative found that the investigators had already concluded that Vega was guilty and did not listen to Vega’s side of the story. Overwhelmed by the stress, Vega followed her doctor’s advice to take medical leave. [3] Over the ensuing months, Vega twice met with Mary Saieva (a human resources manager) to discuss accusations of “time-sheet falsification”. This was a separate offence from that covered by the initial accusation, consisting of not being where she was supposed to be at a given time. Ms. Saieva put little stock in Vega’s own account that, for example, she had not used her own car (which the investigators had tracked) on two of the days in question and that on a third she had entered the buiding late because she had found a dead body in the park. [3, 7] Saieva also ignored the word of Vega’s former supervisor, also Hispanic, that she had asked Vega to work from home during at least one of the times in question. [3-4]

Saieva recommended that Vega be fired. The head of human resources agreed and fired Vega for time-sheet falsification and lying during her meetings with Saieva. This violated many provisions of the Park District’s union agreement: Saieva did not consult with Vega’s current supervisor; she did not recommend progressive discipline; and the Park District did not offer the union a pre-disciplinary agreement. After she was fired, Vega appealed this decision and the personnel board concluded that Vega had been fired properly. [4] During Vega’s tenure as a park supervisor, the Park District had fired no Caucasian park supervisors but three Hispanic ones. [8, 20] It had also mistreated other individual Hispanic employees. [7]

Vega sued the Park District for discrimination on the basis of national origin. The jury found that the Park District had discriminated against Vega under both Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 but Judge Jorge Alonso granted judgment as a matter of law to the Park District on the latter claim, reducing the damages from $750,000 (the jury’s award) to $300,000 (the maximum available under Title VII). The district court also awarded back pay, lost benefits, a payment to reduce the tax burden of a large payment, and reinstatement as park supervisor. [5]

The Park District argued that Vega had failed to introduce evidence that would permit a reasonable jury to find that, if she had been of a different ethnicity, Vega would have kept her job. Judge Barrett, writing for the Court of Appeals, disagreed. She wrote that the decision to fire Vega without lesser sanctions, despite Vega’s spotless record and in violation of union commitments, could indicate antipathy or pretext. [6] So could the inconsistencies in the Park District’s investigation of Vega and its lack of interest in Vega’s version of things. [7] Vega had also introduced anecdotal and statistical evidence of bias against Hispanic employees. [7-8] The Park District argued that there were only two points of comparison, Black park supervisors who were also fired, but Judge Barrett held that the jury could find other employees similar enough for comparison and those two not similar enough (because one was fired for a different offence and the other was fired after Vega). [9] The Park District also argued that there was no causal link between any racial animus and the decision to fire Vega but Judge Barrett held that this argument was not supported by record evidence and, in any case, a jury could find that the decision-maker had simply adopted the racially-tinged reasoning of Saieva and the investigators. [10-12]

The Park District also requested a new trial on the basis of the district court’s rulings on evidence. Judge Barrett addressed most of these arguments in a footnote, stating simply that the Park District made no real argument that they affected the outcome of trial. [Note 1 on page 13] The only argument that “warrant[ed] even a brief discussion” was that the court had erred in allowing the jury to watch unauthenticated video clips from the investigators’ surveillance of Vega, which were not admitted into evidence and were “irrelevant and prejudicial.” Judge Barrett rejected this argument because the Park District did not explain why this decision violated any rule of evidence or why the resulting error was not harmless. [12-13]

The Park District then argued that the district court should have reduced the damages below the statutory maximum of $300,000. Judge Barrett held that Vega’s extensive testimony about the hardship the Park District had caused her meant that the award was rationally related to the evidence, not monstrously excessive, and comparable to similar cases. The award was “undoubtedly generous” but it was not an abuse of discretion. [14-15] Judge Barrett also affirmed the court’s grant of back pay and lost benefits, based on the same reasoning as the district court: that Vega had been diligent in finding alternative employment, because she had applied to over 100 jobs, and that the Park District had provided no evidence that she would have obtained a job in municipal parks if she had applied for it. [15-16] Judge Barrett did vacate the tax component of the award, however, because the district court failed to explain why it had imposed the award or calculated the amount. [16-17]

Vega appealed the district court’s denial, as a matter of law, of her claim that the government had deprived her of her civil rights. The district court had rejected this claim because it found insufficient evidence that any policy-maker knew of, but failed to correct, any practice of discrimination that existed. [18] Although Judge Barrett viewed the decision de novo (i.e. it did not defer to the district court) and construed the evidence in Vega’s favour, she found no evidence that a pattern of discrimination existed. [18] Her evidence about the lack of Hispanics in Human Resources and Investigations, followed by the firing of Hispanic employees, was insufficient without context such as data on Hispanic applicants. [19] Comparisons between the Park District employees and the demographics of the area were unhelpful, because the latter was too broad. [19-20] The instances of discrimination identified by Vega and her witnesses were too few to establish a well settled pattern of discrimination. [20-21]

Weil v. Metal Technologies, Inc. (2019)

Brian Weil and Melissa Fulk worked for Metal Technologies, a manufacturer of car parts with roughly 500 employees. Metal Technologies scheduled employees for shifts but also tracked their work time electronically. It paid them for the hours they were scheduled to work, not the hours recorded on the clock. Metal Technologies also charged its employees to rent work uniforms. [3] Mr. Weil and Ms. Fulk sued Metal Technologies for both practices, arguing that they violated the Fair Labour Standards Act and Indiana wage laws. It would be easier to track the arguments separately.

Rounding Hours

The plaintiffs attempted to certify the rounding hours claim as both a class action (under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure) and a collective action (under the Fair Labour Standards Act). [4 and note 1 on the same page] The district court at first certified these claims but then decertified them on the grounds that, under 28 C.F.R. § 785.48(a), the plaintiffs had to prove not only that they had clocked in longer hours than they were paid for but that they had actually worked during those extra hours. The plaintiffs had failed to prove this was true of the entire class. [4-5]

At a bench trial, the plaintiffs were able to prove very few instances (Weil proved one time; Fulk, four) in which they had actually worked beyond their scheduled hours without payment. [5] Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson awarded “very modest” damages and attorneys’ fees of $16,869.03. [2, 5]

The plaintiffs appealed the district court’s decision to decertify their time-rounding claims. Judge Barrett (writing for the Court of Appeals) permitted the appeal, despite the plaintiffs “los[ing]” at trial on their individual time-rounding claims, because under 7th Circuit precedent the possible class incentive award gave them an interest in the lawsuit. Judge Barrett called attention, however, to Chief Justice Roberts’ disagreement with that doctrine in his dissent from Campell-Ewald Co. v. Lopez. [8 and note 4 on the same page]

Although Judge Barrett entertained the the plaintiffs’ challenges to decertification, she rejected them. Judge Barrett first held that a district court could reconsider a class certification without new evidence. She based this decision on the text of Rule 23, the rule that courts may reconsider collective action after the close of discovery (citing Epenscheid v. DirectSat USA, LLC), and 7th Circuit precedent that district courts have wide discretion in managing such actions. [8-9]

The plaintiffs argued that the district court had been wrong to conclude that time stamps did not necessarily reflect hours worked. Judge Barrett held that this was wrong, citing Kellar v. Summit Seating, Inc. They argued that Metal Technologies had failed to keep accurate records but Judge Barrett found that they had failed to introduce sufficient evidence to support this claim. [Note 6 on page 10] Finally, they argued that Metal Technologies’ employee manual promised to compensate workers for clocked hours but Judge Barrett found that the manual said otherwise. [10]

Wage-Deduction Through Renting Uniforms

The district court granted class certification only for the wage-deduction claims. Metal Technologies conceded liability on the claims until 10 April, 2016, but not after that date (when it began using a new form). [3-4] Therefore, Judge Mangnus-Stinson granted summary judgment on the earlier claims, and awarded $93,152.58 in damages after a bench trial. [5-6] At trial, the district court held that Indiana law permitted employers to deduct wages for purchasing but not renting uniforms and awarded $8,102.04 in damages for claims after Metal Techs. changed its form. [6] The court awarded attorneys’ fees of almost $100,000 for these claims. [6]

Metal Techs. appealed this decision. After oral argument, Indiana passed a new law permitting employees to deduct wages for employees who rented uniforms, and made clear that this law applied retroactively. [6] Judge Barrett held that this law would invalidate the damages award if it applied and that, under Indiana law, it would apply unless it violated a “vested right or constitional guarantee.” [6-7] Judge Barrett therefore remanded the case to district court to determine whether the law applied and, if so, to reconsider the attorneys’ fees it had awarded to the plaintiffs. [7]

The plaintiffs also argued that they were entitled to costs under Indiana law but Judge Barrett rejected this argument, holding that federal law governed the award of costs in federal court. [Note 3 on page 7]

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