Thursday, July 9, 2015

Circuit sustains $616,000 disability retaliation judgment

With little fanfare, the Court of Appeals has sustained a $615,964 judgment in a disability retaliation claim, rejecting the employer's arguments that the jury had no basis to find that an HIV+ employee was fired because he objected to disability discrimination at work.

The case is Munoz v. The Manhattan Club Timeshare, a summary order issued on June 17, two days after the appeal was argued. Along with Gregory Antollino and Richard Cardinale (who both tried the case), I represented plaintiff on appeal. The Second Circuit ruling says little about the case. The district court denied the Club's post trial motions this way:

Muñoz has presented evidence sufficient for a reasonable jury to conclude—as the jury in this case did—that he was fired because he sought an accommodation for his protected disability. For example, Muñoz has offered evidence that TMC employees referred to him as a "complainer" a couple of months after he asked for an accommodation. TMC offered evidence that this comment did not refer to Muñoz and that it may not have been referring specifically to Muñoz's requested accommodation. But the jury was not required to believe TMC's evidence because it was contradicted by testimony from other TMC employees. Similarly, Muñoz has put forth evidence that he was an excellent employee. TMC countered that evidence with evidence that Muñoz was not such a good employee, but, again, the jury was not required to believe that evidence. A reasonable juror could have concluded that Muñoz was an excellent employee, which is circumstantial evidence that he was terminated in retaliation for his protected activity— particularly where, as here, other employees with performance problems were not terminated. Finally, TMC points to the ten-month gap between Muñoz's initial request for an accommodation and his termination as grounds for judgment as a matter of law. But Muñoz has offered evidence that his termination was the capstone to a longer campaign of retaliation that began shortly after his complaint. This is enough for reasonable jurors to conclude that Muñoz was fired in retaliation for his protected activity.
The Court of Appeals (Raggi, Jacobs and Lynch) also sustained the damages award: $185,000 for pain and suffering and $347,500 in punitive damages. As presented by defendant, the case narrative was that plaintiff was a bad worker before and after he complained about discrimination, and that he was was fired 10 months after complaining -- too long to draw a retaliatory inference. Plaintiff argued that defendant inflated allegations of poor job performance, and he put on witnesses who said he was a good worker all along. He also argued that a memo purporting to be an anonymous customer complaint about plaintiff's demeanor was forged by management as a means to terminate his employment. As for the 10-month gap, the jury could have found that management had subjected him to relatively minor retaliatory afterwards, culminating in his termination. 

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