On April 7, 2020, the 7th Circuit affirmed a jury verdict in favor of a plaintiff against her former employer in a national origin discrimination lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). Vega v. Chicago Park District, Nos. 19-1926 & 19-1939 (7th Cir. April 7, 2020). The plaintiff alleged that the defendant discriminated against her because of her national origin, in violation of Title VII. After a seven-day jury trial, the jury returned a verdict in her favor and awarded her compensatory damages in the amount of $750,000. The district court remitted her award to $300,000, which is the statutory maximum under Title VII for compensatory damages. The court also awarded the plaintiff back pay in the amount of $154,707 in lost salary and $1,200 in lost bonuses, plus lost benefits in the amount of $9,255 in substituted health insurance premiums, as well as a tax-component award, and reinstatement of employment. The 7th Circuit affirmed all of the district court’s rulings, except its grant of the tax-component award.
In a Title VII national origin discrimination case, the issue is whether a reasonable jury could conclude that the former employee would have kept her job if she had a different ethnicity, and everything else had remained the same. A plaintiff may prove discrimination through various types of circumstantial evidence. Direct evidence of discrimination–an overt admission of discriminatory intent–is rare. The 7th Circuit concluded that the plaintiff presented enough evidence at trial to support the jury verdict. She introduced evidence that she was an effective employee for over 20 years and was promoted many times. The termination of her employment was inconsistent with her long, favorable record, and it violated union commitments. Unexplained or systematic deviations from established employment policies or practices may demonstrate discriminatory intent and pretext. There were also numerous material errors in the defendant’s investigation. Flagrant inaccuracies and inconsistencies in an employer’s proffered reason for terminating an employee may evidence pretext. The plaintiff presented the investigation as a determined effort to build a case against her, rather than a neutral effort to discover the truth. Additionally, there was evidence that the defendant mistreated other Hispanic employees. Behavior toward or comments directed at other employees in the protected group constitutes circumstantial evidence that raises an inference of discriminatory intent. There was also evidence that the defendant disciplined Hispanic employees more harshly than other groups. An employment discrimination plaintiff may demonstrate discrimination under Title VII by presenting evidence that similarly-situated employees outside the protected class received systemically better treatment. The discriminatory animus of the investigators and the decision-maker was a proximate cause of the termination decision. The evidence was sufficient to support the jury award.
The substantial award of compensatory damages for emotional distress was supported by the plaintiff’s testimony about the emotional, mental, and physical distress that she suffered during the final six months of her employment. She also testified that she was unemployed for a year and constantly worried about her inability to afford necessary medication and to support her mother. The 7th Circuit concluded that the award was rationally related to her testimony and “not monstrously excessive.” Indeed, a plaintiff may support an award for non-pecuniary losses by relying solely on her own testimony about her emotional distress. In another case, the 7th Circuit upheld a jury award to the plaintiff of $200,000 for loss of dignity, humiliation, emotional distress, and pain and suffering, when the emotional distress was supported by testimony highlighting the fact that the plaintiff lost self-esteem, gained weight, and had problems sleeping, as a result of the discrimination. Thus, the 7th Circuit affirmed the large award of compensatory damages for emotional distress.