Seyfarth Synopsis: In a cautionary tale for all employers, the Eleventh Circuit recently upheld a jury verdict of intentional discrimination in an EEOC lawsuit when an employer hired a current employee who was facing an imminent lay-off, rather than the charging party. The employer’s policy was to favor internal candidates who were about to be terminated even if they were not the most qualified or “best” candidate for the open position. The Eleventh Circuit held that a reasonable jury could have found that the application of that policy was merely a pretext for discrimination.

In EEOC v. Exel, Inc., No. 14-11007, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 6629 (11th Cir. Mar. 16, 2018) (available here), the Eleventh Circuit considered and rejected an employer’s challenge to a jury verdict of liability in an EEOC lawsuit, but rejected the jury’s imposition of punitive damages. At issue was the employer’s policy of favoring current employees whose positions were being eliminated for other jobs within the Company, so those employees would not have to lose their jobs. The Eleventh Circuit upheld a jury verdict that was based on the finding that a Hiring Manager discriminated on the basis of sex even though he was ostensibly following the Company’s policy when he hired a soon-to-be-terminated male employee instead of the female charging party.

Case Background

In EEOC v. Exel, the charging party/intervenor complained that her supervisor had denied her a promotion because of her sex. At issue was how the Company filled vacancies. When a job became available, the Hiring Manager would submit an online job requisition for the vacancy. The HR department would then post the job and locate interested candidates from within and outside the Company. Internal applicants could apply on the Company’s website, like external candidates, or they could complete an internal application. HR would consider all candidates together and then forward the best candidates to the Hiring Manger.

However, the Company had a different procedure for considering current employees who were facing termination. The Company’s priority transfer practice (“PTP”) was designed to save employees who worked at a site that was about to undergo a workforce reduction from losing their jobs. Employees applying through the PTP process were given priority over other internal and external candidates as long as they met the minimum qualifications for the job, whether or not they were considered the “best” applicant for the position.

The charging party was passed over for promotion to a supervisory position in favor of an employee who was applying through the PTP process. The EEOC argued that the PTP process was merely a pretext for sex discrimination. It alleged that the Hiring Manager had informed the charging party “behind closed doors” that he would never make a woman a manager. It also alleged that he treated women differently than men and was more “stand-offish” with women.

A jury found in favor of the EEOC and awarded the charging party back pay, compensatory damages, and punitive damages. After trial, the employer filed a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law with respect to liability and the imposition of punitive damages. The district court denied the motion with respect to liability, but vacated the punitive damages award. The EEOC appealed the vacatur to the Eleventh Circuit. The employer also cross-appealed the denial of its motion as to liability.

Eleventh Circuit Issues Split Decision On Question Of Liability

The Eleventh Circuit refused to overturn the jury’s verdict against the employer on the issue of liability. It was persuaded that a reasonable juror could have found against the employer because the jury heard evidence that: (1) the Hiring Manger had the discretion to hire the charging party despite being presented with a PTP candidate; and (2) the evidence showed that the Hiring Manager harbored a bias against women. Based on that evidence, the Eleventh Circuit held that a reasonable jury could have concluded that the Hiring Manager maintained discretion over his own hiring decisions regardless of the PTP process, and that he exercised that discretion in conformity with his discriminatory animus.

In a lengthy dissent, Judge Tjoflat vigorously disagreed with the majority’s conclusion. According to Judge Tjoflat, no reasonable juror could find that sex discrimination motivated the promotion decision at issue because there was insufficient evidence tying the decision-maker’s generalized discriminatory behavior to the specific employment decision at issue.

He agreed with the majority that the EEOC had presented sufficient evidence that would allow a reasonable factfinder to conclude that the Hiring Manager harbored discriminatory animus towards women. However, the dissent opined that there was not sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the Hiring Manager had any chance to put his alleged bias into action because the evidence demonstrated that he was simply following the PTP process when he hired a man for the open supervisory position instead of the charging party.

No Punitive Damages

With respect to punitive damages, the Eleventh Circuit noted that Title VII allows for the recovery of punitive damages only if an employer engaged in a discriminatory practice “with malice or with reckless indifference to the federally protected rights of an aggrieved individual.” Id. at *9 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1981a(b)(1)). That standard focuses on the decision-maker’s state of mind; however, the EEOC must also impute liability for the punitive damages to the employer.

Under prior Eleventh Circuit precedent, liability is imputable to an employer by showing either that the discriminating employee was high up in the corporate hierarchy, or that higher management countenanced or approved of the behavior. Id. at *10 (quoting Dudley v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 166 F.3d 1317, 1323 (11th Cir. 1999)). However, the Supreme Court later held that punitive damages are imputable to an employer when the discriminatory actor was acting within the scope of employment and acting in a managerial capacity. See Kolstad v. Am. Dental Ass’n, 527 U.S. 526, 535 (1999). The Eleventh Circuit held that it was bound to apply its prior precedent because its subsequent decisions had continued to apply Dudley’s “higher management” standard even after Kolstad was decided. The Eleventh Circuit found that it was bound to apply that precedent unless and until it is overruled or squarely abrogated by the Supreme Court or the Eleventh Circuit sitting en banc.

Applying that standard, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision vacating the award of punitive damages because the EEOC had failed to present evidence that the Hiring Manager (who was also a General Manager) was high enough in the corporate hierarchy. He was one of 329 other General Managers, and he oversaw only 25 employees. The EEOC had also failed to present evidence that any employee above the actor’s rank were aware of the discriminatory decision.

Implications For Employers

One point that was significant for the majority’s decision on liability was that the PTP process was not rigorously followed in all of its details when the discriminatory decision was made. Among other things, the Hiring Manager identified the wrong position when he submitted a requisition for the open position to Corporate HR. This opened the door for the EEOC to argue that the PTP process was merely a pretext for the decision, which the Hiring Manager had used as cover for the discriminatory animus that was really motivating his decision. According to the EEOC, the Hiring Manager requisitioned the wrong position as a means of ensuring that the charging party would not apply for the open position.

One lesson for employers to take away from this case is that any policy that favors one candidate over another is potentially problematic, even where the intentions behind the policy are to protect current employees from layoffs. Employers should take care to ensure that such policies are rigorously applied. Any deviations from that policy could later be called into question and even used against the employer as evidence that the application of that policy in that instance was merely a pretext for discrimination.