A Caucasian finance coordinator for a school district was reassigned to a position of food services assistant after the racial majority of the Board changed in an election. The employee then took sick leave, and while on leave, requested that the Board provide her with information concerning her new job duties and requested a new contract. The Board provided neither. After being on leave for roughly ten months, the superintendent notified the employee that he was recommending her termination given that she had exhausted her sick days. The employee then provided a doctor's note indicating her ability to return to work. She was told she would have a contract for the food services assistant position when she returned, but the Board failed to provide the contract or any information concerning the new job role. Within weeks, she resigned her position and filed suit alleging race discrimination, hostile work environment, and constructive discharge pursuant to Title VII. The race discrimination and constructive discharge claims proceeded to jury trial, as did the employee's request for punitive damages. The jury found that the demotion from finance coordinator to food services assistant was an adverse employment action which was based on race, and that she was effectively forced out of her position due to race, and awarded her $70,825. She was also awarded punitive damages against the individual Board members. The Board moved to set aside the jury's verdicts, and the Court agreed, leaving only the $10,000 award of compensatory damages in tact. The employee appealed. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the employee, in part, in finding that the evidence presented was sufficient to permit a reasonable jury to conclude that the change in position was a demotion with diminution in title and significantly decreased responsibilities, and could be found demeaning and thus support a claim for constructive discharge. The Appellate Court's role was to determine whether there was a complete absence of probative facts to support the jury's verdict, and the Court could not say that there was. The jury's verdict was reinstated, but the issue of punitive damages was remanded back to the trial court so that the jury could be properly instructed regarding the affirmative defense of "ignorance" of the law before determining any award.
This decision in Sanders v. Lee County School District highlights the importance of ensuring that all decision makers (especially those making staffing changes) are properly trained concerning discrimination and harassment laws, and to appropriately consult with higher-level management (e.g,, in this case, the superintendent) or legal counsel to ensure that all risks are appropriately considered in rendering such determinations. Further, this case demonstrates that even individual employees can be sued and held accountable for their conduct as it pertains to punitive damages. For more information, please contact Amy K. Jensen.
race discrimination, Title VII