306 F.3d 562 (8th Cir. 2002), 01-3031, Salitros v. Chrysler Corp.

Docket Nº:01-3031.
Citation:306 F.3d 562
Party Name:Gerald G. SALITROS, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. CHRYSLER CORPORATION, Defendant-Appellant.
Case Date:October 03, 2002
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
 
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306 F.3d 562 (8th Cir. 2002)

Gerald G. SALITROS, Plaintiff-Appellee,

v.

CHRYSLER CORPORATION, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 01-3031.

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

October 3, 2002

Submitted: May 13, 2002.

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Kelly A. Moothart, argued, Kansas City, MO, for appellant.

Sandra K. Kensy, argued, St. Paul, MN, for appellee.

Before WOLLMAN, BRIGHT, and JOHN R. GIBSON, Circuit Judges.

JOHN R. GIBSON, Circuit Judge.

DaimlerChrysler Corporation, formerly known as Chrysler, appeals from the judgment entered against it awarding Gerald Salitros $100,000 in punitive damages and $445,516 in front pay on his claim that Chrysler retaliated against him for exercising his rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Chrysler also appeals the district court's award to Salitros of $128,268.52 in attorney's fees and costs. Chrysler contends that the evidence was not sufficient to support the retaliation claim or the award of punitive damages, and that the punitive damages award cannot stand because the jury failed to award compensatory damages. Chrysler also contends that the district court abused its discretion in awarding front pay and in fixing the amount of the attorney's fee award. We affirm the district court's judgment and fee award.

We recite the facts in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict. Salitros started work at the Chrysler Parts Distribution Center in Minneapolis in 1988, at the age of 46. He worked as a stock-keeper, putting away the merchandise coming into the warehouse. In February 1989, he injured his back in an accident at work in which he fell eighteen and a half feet and landed on his back and neck on cement. When he came back to work after the accident, he had difficulty finding work he could do at the warehouse without aggravating his injuries. He had medical restrictions on the amount of weight he could lift and the range and repetitiveness of movements he could perform. He found that he could work in the Materials Return Area, putting away miscellaneous parts that dealers returned to the warehouse, because the parts were returned in

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small quantities, so the work was not as repetitive as other jobs he had tried, and because not much bending, twisting, or climbing was required.

For the next eight years, Salitros and Chrysler were in regular conflict over what duties Salitros could perform without exceeding his medical restrictions. The ongoing dispute about Salitros's restrictions was accompanied by personal animosity. Salitros's union representative, Mark Stone, testified that he heard one of Chrysler's supervisors refer to Salitros's grievances as "a big joke," and he heard them say, "[S]hould we fuck with Gerry today or leave him alone?" The strain wore heavily on Salitros, who was sometimes reduced to tears, and who looked "sad all the time" and was "aging rapidly."

On January 23, 1997, Mark Stone told Salitros that another worker, with similar medical restrictions to Salitros's and more seniority, had bid on the Materials Return Area job and that Chrysler was going to give the job to the other employee. In fact, Richard Haynes, Chrysler's Parts Distribution Center manager, testified that he had decided informally that Salitros ought to be able to keep the job, but the decision was not to be announced until the official date for reassignments. In the meantime, Haynes planned to allow the other employee to try the job for four hours on January 24, with Salitros assigned to other duties that day. When Salitros heard from the union representative that the other employee was going to get the Materials Return job and then was told at the warehouse office that the employee would be doing the Materials Return job the next day, he became very upset. He called his doctor and went by the warehouse office to announce that he wouldn't be in the next day because he was going to see his doctor and file an EEOC charge. He did both.

Three days later, on January 27, Salitros's doctor sent a fax to the union benefits representative at Chrysler stating that Salitros was off work indefinitely. Salitros also called the union benefits representative to make sure he delivered the fax to Chrysler management. Chrysler received the fax, but took the position that it was insufficient to satisfy the notice requirement in the Chrysler-UAW collective bargaining agreement. The collective bargaining agreement provided that an employee could be fired if he was absent for five days without notifying the plant in accordance with the procedure set out in the local agreement. The local agreement described the procedure for reporting absences as follows:

It is expected and appreciated that employees who are absent from work call the warehouse phone number during the first two hours of their starting time on the day of their absence. Absences and tardiness may be reported by telephone or by a fellow employee, but this does not constitute an excused absence.

The union representative phoned Salitros on January 31 and told him that Chrysler was taking the position that the fax was not sufficient notification and that Salitros had to call personally and talk to a supervisor. While Salitros was on the phone with the union representative, he heard Robert Schulte, the warehouse manager, come in and speak to the representative, saying, "[T]hat son of a B, ah, filed another EEOC charge." Salitros also heard Schulte say he was going to fire Salitros. Salitros testified that he did not feel capable of speaking to his supervisors at that point, and he had been told earlier by the union benefits representative that fax notice was telephone notice. He did not telephone the plant. Schulte sent him a letter that very day terminating his employment for failure to give notice of his

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absence. The union representative testified that at a later meeting, someone asked Haynes why he wouldn't accept the fax as notice, and Haynes said: "[B]ecause I want to teach Gerry a lesson."

The union filed a grievance regarding the termination, and as a result of the grievance, Chrysler reinstated Salitros on April 8, 1997, retroactive to January 24. At the same time, Chrysler notified Salitros that it had placed him on medical leave. Salitros never returned to work, but remained on medical leave through the date of trial. His doctor testified that he was not able to return to work at Chrysler because the stress he experienced there aggravated his physical symptoms. His vocational rehabilitation expert opined that, other than employment with Chrysler, Salitros's job opportunities would probably be only "intermittent and insubstantial." He received disability payments, which were substantially less than he would have made had he been able to work.

Salitros brought this suit alleging Chrysler violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, both by failing to make reasonable accommodation for Salitros's disability and by retaliating against Salitros for asserting his rights under the Act. He also alleged obstruction of his attempts to obtain workers' compensation benefits and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.1

The case was tried to a jury, which found that Chrysler did not discriminate against Salitros on the basis of his disability or fail to make reasonable accommodation for his disability and that Chrysler did not intentionally inflict emotional distress. The jury did, however, find that Chrysler had retaliated against Salitros for exercising his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The jury found that Salitros had no lost wages or benefits through the date of the verdict, and no other actual damages, but it awarded him $100,000 in punitive damages.

The issue of front pay being reserved for the court, the district judge ruled that Salitros was entitled to front pay of $445,416. He also awarded Salitros attorney's fees and costs of $107,779.25 and $20,489.27, respectively.

I.

A.

Chrysler first contends that there is insufficient evidence to support the jury's verdict that it engaged in retaliation against Salitros for exercising his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and that the district court should have granted its motion for judgment as a matter of law.

We review de novo the district court's denial of a motion for judgment as a matter of law. Stauch v. City of Columbia Heights, 212 F.3d 425, 429 (8th Cir. 2000). Judgment as a matter of law is proper only when "a party has been fully heard on an issue and there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for that party on that issue." Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a). In evaluating the sufficiency of the evidence, we must review all the evidence in the record, drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party and disregarding evidence in favor of the moving party that the jury is not required to believe. Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150-51, 120 S.Ct. 2097, 147 L.Ed.2d 105 (2000).

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Put another way, we must accept all the evidence favoring Salitros, but only the evidence favoring Chrysler that is uncontradicted and unimpeached and that comes from disinterested witnesses. See id.

To prove his claim for retaliation, Salitros had to show that he engaged in activity protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, that he suffered an adverse employment action, and that there is a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse action. 42 U.S.C. § 12203 (1994); Schoffstall v. Henderson, 223 F.3d 818, 826 (8th Cir. 2000).

Chrysler first contends that Salitros did not produce evidence that he...

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