Employee’s jury verdict of over $750,000 for retaliation affirmed

San Antonio Water System v. Debra Nicholas, 04-12-00442-CV (Tex. App. – San Antonio, October 23, 2013).

This is an employment retaliation case where Nicholas claimed she was terminated then not considered for reemployment after she opposed certain discriminatory practices. A jury returned a verdict (over $750,000) for Nicholas and SAWS appealed. The 4th Court of Appeals affirmed the jury verdict in this 34 page opinion.

SAWS argued Nicholas failed to establish a “but for” causal link and for insufficiency of the evidence. Nicholas argued her prima facie case of retaliation creates a “legally mandatory inference of discrimination” that prevails unless SAWS produces a legally sufficient reason for her discharge. Nicholas argued that because SAWS provided only a generalized reason for her discharge—that her position was eliminated due to a company reorganization—it failed to rebut the presumption and, thus, the burden never shifted to her to show pretext or falsity.  The 4th Court disagreed with Nicholas’ reasoning (thank goodness) but affirmed on other grounds.

Instead of adopting Nicholas’ reasoning, the court cited precedent that when a case has been fully tried on the merits, the adequacy of a party’s showing at any particular stage of the McDonnell Douglas ritual is unimportant. The only analysis is to inquire whether the evidence is sufficient to support the jury’s ultimate finding.  Here, Nicholas need only show that she subjectively (that is, in good faith) believed her employer was engaged in unlawful employment practices, and her belief was objectively reasonable in light of the facts and record presented.  After going through the factual information presented to the jury (including a lengthy discussion of the 3 year lapse in time between protected activity and adverse action), the court determined the evidence was legally and factually sufficient to support the judgment.  SAWS also challenged the judgment based on the trial court’s refusal to cap damages at $300,000 (statutory cap based on number of employees).  Nicholas argued front pay was equitable and therefore not subject to the cap.  The Fourth Court agreed reasoning because front pay is an alternative to reinstatement, it is equitable in nature and not subject to the cap. As a result, the judgment is affirmed.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.