Justia U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Labor & Employment Law
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Cecil Bristow suffered from a chronic lung disease, COPD, and attributed it to coal-mine dust from years of working in coal mines. An administrative law judge and the Benefits Review Board agreed with Bristow and awarded him benefits. Bristow's most recent employer, Energy West Mining Company, petitioned the Tenth Circuit for judicial review of the Board's decision, and the Tenth Circuit denied the petition, finding the Board did not err in upholding the administrative law judge's award of benefits. View "Energy West v. Bristow" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-appellant Jeannie Parker fielded calls for United Airliines, booking flight reservations. Parker took FMLA leave because she had a vision disorder and her father had cancer. About five months after approving the leave, Parker’s supervisor suspected Parker was avoiding new calls by telling customers that she would get additional information, putting the customers on hold, and chatting with coworkers about personal matters while the customers waited. The supervisor characterized Parker’s conduct as “call avoidance.” This suspicion led to a meeting between the supervisor, Parker, and a union representative. Following the meeting, United suspended Parker while investigating her performance. During this investigation, the supervisor reviewed more of Parker’s phone calls with customers and recommended that United fire Parker. United’s policies prohibited the supervisor from firing Parker; United had to select a manager to conduct a meeting and allow participation by Parker, her supervisor, and a union representative. All of them could present arguments and evidence, and the manager would decide whether to fire Parker. At the second meeting, the union representative asked United to apply its progressive discipline policy rather than terminate Parker's employment, to which United declined. Policy allowed Parker to appeal by filing a grievance; if she were to submit a grievance, another manager would conduct the appeal, wherein Parker could again be represented by the union, and present additional arguments. Parker filed a grievance but declined to participate, relying on her union representative. The union representative admitted in the conference call that Parker had “no excuse for the demonstrated behavior of call avoidance except for being under extreme mental duress.” With this admission, the union representative asked United to give Parker another chance. The senior manager declined and concluded that United hadn’t acted improperly in firing Parker. The issue this case presented for the Tenth Circuit's review centered on whether United's termination was made in retaliation for Parker's taking FMLA leave. Specifically, whether FMLA's prohibition against retaliation applied when the employee obtained consideration by independent decisionmakers. "Retaliation entails a causal link between an employee’s use of FMLA leave and the firing. That causal link is broken when an independent decisionmaker conducts her own investigation and decides to fire the employee." The Tenth Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment to United. View "Parker v. United Airlines" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-appellant La’Tonya Ford worked at Jackson National Life Insurance (“Jackson”) for about four years. During her time there, Ford allegedly suffered sex- and race-based discrimination; faced retaliation for complaining about her treatment; endured a hostile work environment; and was constructively discharged. After she left Jackson for another job, Ford sued the company for (1) discrimination; (2) retaliation; (3) hostile work environment; and (4) constructive discharge. Jackson moved for summary judgment; the district court granted Jackson’s motion and dismissed all of Ford’s claims. Ford now appeals, urging us to reverse the court on each claim. The Tenth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of her discrimination claim. But it reversed in part the dismissal of her retaliation claim; her hostile-work-environment claim; and her constructive-discharge claim. View "Ford v. Jackson National Life, et al." on Justia Law

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Michael Cruz sued defendant insurance companies alleging they terminated his contract, under which he sold defendants’ insurance products, on the basis of race, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981. In support, Cruz relied on a statement allegedly made by his district manager, which Cruz argued represented direct evidence of discrimination, as well as circumstantial evidence. The district court granted summary judgment to defendants, ruling that the district manager’s statement was inadmissible hearsay and that Cruz’s circumstantial evidence did not otherwise demonstrate discriminatory intent. Without considering Cruz’s circumstantial evidence, the Tenth Circuit reversed because the district manager’s alleged comment was not inadmissible hearsay; it was admissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 801(d)(2)(D) as a party-opponent admission made by an agent within the scope of the agency relationship. And because that admission constituted direct evidence of discrimination, the grant of summary judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Cruz v. Farmers Insurance, et al." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Kelly Dansie sued Defendant Union Pacific Railroad Company for terminating his employment in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). The district court granted summary judgment for Defendant on Plaintiff’s ADA claim but allowed the case to proceed to trial on Plaintiff’s FMLA claim. The jury then returned a verdict in Defendant’s favor. After review, the Tenth Circuit reversed in part and affirmed in part, finding plaintiff presented sufficient evidence for a jury to find that defendant failed to engage in the ADA mandated good-faith communications with respect to reasonable accommodations of plaintiff's disability. Given that evidence, summary judgment for Defendant was reversed on plaintiff’s ADA claim, and the issue was remanded to the district court for a trial. But the Tenth Circuit affirmed the verdict for defendant on plaintiff’s FMLA claim. View "Dansie v. Union Pacific Railroad" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed suit against defendant Roark-Whitten Hospitality 2 (RW2) seeking relief for what the EEOC alleged were unlawful employment practices by RW2 on the basis of race, color, national origin, and retaliation. Those unlawful employment practices allegedly occurred after RW2 purchased and began operating a hotel in Taos, New Mexico in 2009. The aggrieved employees were all employed at the hotel prior to RW2’s purchase, and were all either terminated or constructively discharged at some point after the purchase. After the action was initiated, the EEOC filed amended complaints seeking to add as defendants two additional entities, Jai Hanuman, LLC (Jai), which purchased the hotel from RW2 in 2014, and SGI, LLC (SGI), which purchased the hotel from Jai in 2016. The district court dismissed the EEOC’s claims against SGI on the grounds that the EEOC failed to adequately allege a basis for successor liability against SGI. As for RW2 and Jai, the district court, acting pursuant to a motion for civil contempt filed by the EEOC, entered default judgment against them and then conducted a hearing on the issue of damages. After conducting that hearing, the district court dismissed the EEOC’s claims against Jai on the grounds that the EEOC failed to adequately allege a basis for successor liability against Jai, and it ordered RW2 to pay compensatory damages to the EEOC in the total amount of $35,000. The EEOC appealed, arguing: (1) the district court erred in dismissing its claims against defendants SGI and Jai; and (2) the district court erred in awarding only $35,000 in compensatory damages for the eleven aggrieved individuals. After review, the Tenth Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal of the EEOC’s claims against defendant SGI, affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the EEOC’s claims against defendant Jai, reversed the district court’s damage award against defendant RW2, and remanded for further proceedings. View "EEOC v. Roark-Whitten Hospitality, et al." on Justia Law

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Defendant-Appellant United Airlines (“United”) appealed a district court’s denial of its motion for judgment as a matter of law (“JMOL”), and its motion for new trial. A jury found that United discriminated against two flight attendants, Plaintiffs-Appellees Jeanne Stroup and Ruben Lee by terminating them because of their ages in willful violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”). United filed its motions with the district court, contending, among other things, that the jury’s verdict was based on legally insufficient evidence and the court erred in admitting Plaintiffs’ testimony about their emotional distress. The district court denied the motions. United contended: (1) the district court erred in denying its JMOL motion because (a) there was insufficient evidence to support the jury’s finding that United discriminated against Plaintiffs because of their ages in violation of the ADEA, and (b) similarly, there was insufficient evidence to support the jury’s finding that United acted willfully in committing any ADEA violation; and (2) the court abused its discretion and committed reversible error when it admitted Plaintiffs’ allegedly irrelevant and highly prejudicial emotional distress testimony. After review, the Tenth Circuit concluded there was sufficient evidence for the jury to reasonably find that, not only did United violate the ADEA by discriminating against Plaintiffs, but it did so willfully. Furthermore, the Court determined the district court did not err by admitting the challenged emotional distress testimony. View "Stroup, et al. v. United Airlines" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-appellant Tiffany Litzsinger worked for the Adams County Coroner’s Office from 2013 until she was terminated in 2018. During her time there, Litzsinger suffered from anxiety and depression, both of which worsened in the months leading up to her termination. After an anxiety episode, Adams County granted Litzsinger temporary leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). When Litzsinger returned from her FMLA leave, the Coroner placed Litzsinger on probation for myriad violations of workplace policies. Shortly after Litzsinger’s probation began, the Coroner terminated Litzsinger for violating the terms of her probation. Litzsinger sued the Coroner’s Office under the FMLA and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), claiming the Coroner terminated her in retaliation for exercising her rights under both statutes. The district court granted summary judgment for the Coroner’s Office because Litzsinger failed to demonstrate that the Coroner’s reason for terminating her was pretextual. The Tenth Circuit affirmed, finding a rational jury could not find that the Coroner’s proffered reason for firing Litzsinger was pretextual. View "Litzsinger v. Adams County Coroner's Office" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Jamie Herrmann appeals the district court’s grant of summary judgment to Defendant Salt Lake City Corporation (“the City”) on her claims for failure to accommodate her disability, disability discrimination, and retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Herrmann began working for the City in 2002 and successfully held different positions in the Salt Lake City Justice courts for nine years. Starting in 2011, Herrmann began working as an in-court clerk, which required her to spend more time in court than her previous positions. Herrmann was diagnosed with PTSD, stemming from a nearly decade-long abusive marriage. Her presence in the courtroom during domestic violence cases frequently triggered her anxiety, causing severe migraines that could last for several days at a time and resulting in a significant downturn in her productivity. Herrmann raised three claims under the ADA: (1) failure to provide reasonable accommodations, (2) disability discrimination, and (3) retaliation. The Tenth Circuit found Herrmann presented some evidence supporting a conclusion that she could not be accommodated within her existing position. Therefore, the district court erred in holding that Herrmann did not meet her prima facie case. As the district court did not address the other elements of Herrmann’s prima facie case the City challenged, judgment was reversed and the case remanded to provide the district court with that opportunity. View "Herrmann v. Salt Lake City Corporation" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-Appellant Viktorya Reznik appealed the district court’s dismissal of her Title VII retaliation action against her former employer, Defendant-Appellee inContact, Inc. (inContact). From January 2018 to May 2019, Reznik worked as a Director of Project Management for inContact, a Utah-based corporation offering cloud-based services to companies using call centers. In April 2019, Reznik received internal complaints about racial slurs in the workplace from two native Filipino employees who worked in the company’s Manila, Philippines office. They claimed that an inContact manager, Scott Mendenhall, had repeatedly subjected them and other native Filipino employees to racial slurs, calling them “monkeys” and “not human.” Mendenhall worked in the same Salt Lake County facility as Reznik. Weeks after Reznik reported the harassment to company management, she was terminated as "not a good culture fit" and "not a good fit." Following Reznik’s termination and administrative exhaustion, she filed her Title VII complaint in federal district court. inContact moved to dismiss and the district court granted the motion. According to the district court, Reznik failed to state a claim because she did not show an objectively reasonable belief that she opposed conduct unlawful under Title VII. Finding Reznik's belief she was opposing conduct unlawful under Title VII was objectively reasonable, the Tenth Circuit reversed the district court's dismissal. View "Reznik v. inContact" on Justia Law