June 04, 2012
The premise of the civil jury system is that jurors decide the facts and judges rule on the law. At trial, jurors listen to conflicting evidence, evaluate the credibility of the witnesses and review documentary evidence. The judge then instructs the jury on the parties' respective legal rights and responsibilities, and the jurors render a verdict by applying the law as stated by the judge to the facts they alone determine. Either party may make a pre-trial motion for summary judgment and avoid trial if there is no dispute about the material facts and a party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. A judge may throw the whole case out, or limit the trial by determining who is liable as a matter of law and then directing the factual issue of damages to a jury to decide.
Most employment discrimination cases focus on fact-driven issues: who knew what, and when they knew it; what actions were taken; whether complaints were ignored; and what policies (if any) were applied. Determinations of intent and witness credibility are paramount. Ambiguities in documentation are also a common basis for judges to send the case to a jury to weigh the evidence and determine what actually happened. Yet, on May 23, 2012, in a retaliation lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a Federal judge ruled as a matter of law that a multinational chemical company unlawfully retaliated against an employee with 19 years of service when he refused to waive his rights to file a discrimination charge.
It was undisputed that Stephen Whitlow was disciplined for numerous performance related issues. He received verbal warnings, a disciplinary suspension, and even a formal counseling session. In lieu of termination, he was presented with a Last Chance Agreement (LCA), which explained that he was receiving a final opportunity to comply with all requirements in order to keep his job. If his performance or behavior lapsed again, he would be terminated immediately.
As a condition of his continued employment, the Last Chance Agreement also prohibited him from filing a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — even a charge based on conduct that might occur in the future. When Whitlow refused to be bound by that agreement, the company fired him. The Judge concluded that the company retaliated against Whitlow because he refused to be stripped of his rights.
The court noted, "It is not often that a plaintiff moves for or is granted summary judgment on a Title VII retaliation claim." The judge ruled that no jury could reasonably conclude that the employer did not unlawfully retaliate against Whitlow when it fired him, and that its argument to the contrary "defies simple logic." The only issue now remaining for trial with regard to Whitlow is the amount of damages due to him. He can seek compensation for lost income and emotional distress and punitive damages.