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Federal Court Upholds Large Jury Verdict Against Tyson Foods

02.01.2009

In April 2008, Judge Joseph McKinley of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky presided over a trial in which a former employee of Tyson Foods was awarded more than $1 million by the jury. Tyson subsequently asked for a judgment in its favor despite the verdict, which Judge McKinley denied. What did the company do to incur such liability? And why did the judge deny its request for a favorable ruling? Read on to find out.

Facts

Amanda West began working at the Tyson Foods chicken-processing plant in Robards on January 7, 2005. During her first week on the job, she received and signed the following sexual harassment policy:

Contact your supervisor and/or local HR Manager. The HR Manager will promptly investigate and resolve the complaint as quickly as possible to effect prompt and effective remedial action if harassment is determined to have occurred. In no circumstances, shall the investigation take longer than two working weeks. In cases where the parties work in close proximity and/or reporting, there should be careful attention to address that working relationship in the interim.

West testified that within her first week of work, several Hispanic male employees harassed her by telling her that she had a “nice ass” and “big boobs” and that she was sexy. Much more severe and suggestive comments soon followed. West complained to Cory Parks, her supervisor, who told her, “Well, you just have to understand that’s how [Hispanics] treat their women over there” and “you are hot.” However, he did tell her that he would investigate her complaint — which he then failed to do.

By the fourth week of West’s employment, the incidents had escalated to unwanted touching, grabbing, and kissing. After failing to report to work for four consecutive days, West was terminated for “job abandonment.” During an exit interview, she told an HR manager about the harassment, and the manager assured her that an investigation would take place.

It was undisputed that Tyson didn’t investigate West’s sexual harassment allegations until it received the charge of discrimination she filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Shortly after making her EEOC charge, she filed this lawsuit alleging claims under both state and federal law.

The court denied Tyson’s request for pretrial dismissal, and the case proceeded to trial. The jury awarded West $750,000 in compensatory damages, $130,363.29 in front pay and back pay, and $400,000 in punitive damages, which the court limited to the statutory maximum of $300,000. Tyson’s request for a judgment in its favor followed.

Court’s decision

In response to the company’s request, the court simply reviewed the evidence to determine whether the jury could have reasonably found in West’s favor. The court didn’t alter the jury’s verdict in any significant respect.

First, the court reviewed whether West had presented sufficient evidence to sustain her sexual harassment claim. It found that her testimony alone was legally sufficient to establish her claim because she testified about her direct experiences and presented evidence of her contemporaneous complaints to both coworkers and management. Moreover, she was able to show that the harassment by her coworkers was objectively and subjectively severe and pervasive. Finally, the jury could reasonably have found Parks’ response to her complaint inadequate.

West had also filed a claim of constructive discharge. To prevail on that claim, she had to show that a “reasonable employee would have felt compelled to resign.” Because Tyson offered no remedy and undertook no investigation and the harassment continued unabated and only worsened, the jury could fairly conclude that a reasonable person would have been forced to resign.

In addition, the court upheld the front pay award, reducing it only slightly based on discount tables. Relying on an opinion from the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the court rejected Tyson’s argument that West shouldn’t have been awarded front pay because she received large compensatory and punitive damage awards. An employee is entitled to recover punitive damages if she can demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that her employer “engaged in a discriminatory practice . . . with malice or reckless indifference to [her] federally protected rights.” Given Tyson’s failure to investigate West’s claim both before and after her departure, punitive damages were properly awarded by the jury. West v. Tyson Foods, Inc., 2008 WL 5110957 (W.D. Ky., Dec. 3, 2008).

Bottom line

An untrained workforce could be a very costly workforce. Here, the harassers’ conduct was clearly inappropriate, but it was compounded by the response from the victim’s supervisor and the HR department. It isn’t difficult to see how a jury could find that such a high-dollar award was appropriate.

If you have any questions or need help, please contact any member of the Greenebaum Doll & McDonald Labor and Employment Department.

Copyright 2009 M. Lee Smith Publishers LLC
KENTUCKY EMPLOYMENT LAW LETTER does not attempt to offer solutions to individual problems but rather to provide information about current developments in Kentucky employment law. Questions about individual problems should be addressed to the employment law attorney of your choice.

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