677 F.3d 1047 (11th Cir. 2012), 11-11659, Holland v. Gee

Docket Nº:11-11659, 11-11884.
Citation:677 F.3d 1047
Opinion Judge:MARTIN, Circuit Judge:
Party Name:Lisa M. HOLLAND, Plaintiff-Appellant-Cross-Appellee, v. David A. GEE, in his official capacity as Sheriff of Hillsborough County, Defendant-Appellee-Cross-Appellant.
Attorney:Ryan David Barack, Michelle Erin Nadeau, Kwall, Showers & Barack, PA, Clearwater, FL, for Plaintiff. Thomas M. Gonzalez, Christopher M. Bentley, Thompson, Sizemore, Gonzalez & Hearing, PA, Ernest F. Peluso, Hillsborough Cty. Sheriff's Office, Tampa, FL, for Defendant.
Judge Panel:Before MARTIN, HILL and EBEL,[*] Circuit Judges.
Case Date:April 17, 2012
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
 
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677 F.3d 1047 (11th Cir. 2012)

Lisa M. HOLLAND, Plaintiff-Appellant-Cross-Appellee,

v.

David A. GEE, in his official capacity as Sheriff of Hillsborough County, Defendant-Appellee-Cross-Appellant.

Nos. 11-11659, 11-11884.

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit.

April 17, 2012

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Ryan David Barack, Michelle Erin Nadeau, Kwall, Showers & Barack, PA, Clearwater, FL, for Plaintiff.

Thomas M. Gonzalez, Christopher M. Bentley, Thompson, Sizemore, Gonzalez & Hearing, PA, Ernest F. Peluso, Hillsborough Cty. Sheriff's Office, Tampa, FL, for Defendant.

Appeals from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida.

Before MARTIN, HILL and EBEL,[*] Circuit Judges.

MARTIN, Circuit Judge:

After hearing the evidence in this pregnancy discrimination case, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, Lisa Holland, and awarded her $80,000 in back pay and $10,000 for emotional distress. The defendant, Sheriff David Gee, moved for judgment as a matter of law. The District Court sustained the jury's finding of liability, but vacated the award of back pay. After careful review of the record and of the parties' briefs, and with the benefit of oral argument, we affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for the entry of judgment on the jury's verdict.

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I. BACKGROUND

Ms. Holland joined the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office in 2003 as a data processing telecommunications technician (" DP Tech" ). Her responsibility as a DP Tech was to provide on-site computer and hardware support at various facilities operated bye the Sheriff's Office. In November 2006, Ms. Holland informed the office that she was pregnant. Several months later, in March 2007, Ms. Holland was transferred to the Help Desk. Ms. Holland protested the decision, but to no avail. Eventually, however, Ms. Holland was transferred back to her DP Tech duties. In June 2007, she was terminated.

In November 2008, Ms. Holland filed suit against Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee, in his official capacity, asserting claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq., as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(k), and under the Florida Civil Rights Act of 1992 (FCRA), Fla. Stat. §§ 760.01 et seq. Sheriff Gee filed an answer, denying liability. In that pleading, he did not assert the affirmative defense of after-acquired evidence.

The case proceeded to trial before a jury. At the close of Ms. Holland's case and again at the close of all of the evidence, Sheriff Gee moved for judgment as a matter of law. The District Court reserved ruling and submitted the case to the jury. Ultimately, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Ms. Holland. It found that Ms. Holland's transfer and her termination were both adverse employment actions and that Ms. Holland's pregnancy was a motivating factor for both decisions. The jury also awarded Ms. Holland $80,000 in back pay and $10,000 for emotional distress.

The District Court granted in part and denied in part Sheriff Gee's motion for judgment as a matter of law. The District Court held that there was enough evidence to support the jury's finding of discrimination. However, the District Court vacated the award of back pay on the ground that it was precluded under the doctrine of after-acquired evidence. Sheriff Gee renewed his motion for judgment as a matter of law, arguing that the evidence was not sufficient to support the finding of liability. The District Court denied that motion, and the parties timely appealed.

II. STANDARDS OF REVIEW

We review de novo a district court's ruling on a motion for judgment as a matter of law. Montgomery v. Noga, 168 F.3d 1282, 1289 (11th Cir.1999). We also examine de novo whether a jury instruction misstated the law or was otherwise misleading. Morgan v. Family Dollar Stores, Inc., 551 F.3d 1233, 1283 (11th Cir.2008).

III. DISCUSSION

A. SUFFICIENCY OF THE EVIDENCE

1. Legal Framework

Title VII prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sex. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a).1 The Pregnancy Discrimination Act amended Title VII to provide that discrimination on the basis of sex includes discrimination " on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions." Id. § 2000e(k). " The analysis for a pregnancy discrimination claim is

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the same type of analysis used in other Title VII sex discrimination suits." Armindo v. Padlocker, Inc., 209 F.3d 1319, 1320 (11th Cir.2000).

Under Title VII, a plaintiff may prevail on a claim by showing that her pregnancy " was a motivating factor" for an employment decision. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(m). To prove this, a plaintiff may offer either direct evidence or circumstantial evidence. Dixon v. Hallmark Cos., Inc., 627 F.3d 849, 854 (11th Cir.2010). Direct evidence is " evidence that, if believed, proves the existence of a fact without inference or presumption." Wilson v. B/E Aerospace, Inc., 376 F.3d 1079, 1086 (11th Cir.2004) (quotation marks omitted). " [O]nly the most blatant remarks whose intent could mean nothing other than to discriminate on the basis of some impermissible factor constitute direct evidence of discrimination." Id. (quotation marks omitted).

In cases involving circumstantial evidence, we apply the burden-shifting framework of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973). The Supreme Court developed this framework because it recognized that " direct evidence of an employer's motivation will often be unavailable or difficult to acquire." Combs v. Plantation Patterns, 106 F.3d 1519, 1537 (11th Cir.1997) (quotation marks omitted). Thus, the burden-shifting scheme of McDonnell Douglas is a procedural device designed to help the parties progressively " sharpen the inquiry into the elusive factual question" of the employer's motivations. Tex. Dep't of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 256 n. 8, 101 S.Ct. 1089, 1095 n. 8, 67 L.Ed.2d 207 (1981).

Under McDonnell Douglas, the plaintiff must initially establish a prima facie case, which generally consists of the following: 1) the plaintiff was a member of a protected class, 2) she was qualified to do the job, 3) she was subjected to an adverse employment action, and 4) similarly situated employees outside of the protected class were treated differently. See Wilson, 376 F.3d at 1087, 1091. The prima facie case serves the basic function of " eliminat[ing] the most common nondiscriminatory reasons for the plaintiff's rejection" — namely, that the employee was not qualified for the position. Burdine, 450 U.S. at 253-54, 101 S.Ct. at 1094. " The burden of establishing a prima facie case ... is not onerous." Id. at 253, 101 S.Ct. at 1094.

The prima facie case creates a presumption of discrimination, the role of which is to " forc[e] the defendant to come forward with some response." St. Mary's Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 510-11, 113 S.Ct. 2742, 2749, 125 L.Ed.2d 407 (1993). Thus, once a plaintiff makes a prima facie case, " the burden of production shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its actions." Wilson, 376 F.3d at 1087. " The employer need not persuade the [finder of fact] that it was actually motivated by the proffered reasons." Id. (quotation marks omitted). However, " the defendant must clearly set forth ... the reasons for the plaintiff's rejection." Burdine, 450 U.S. at 255, 101 S.Ct. at 1094.

Once the employer identifies a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its decision, the presumption of discrimination disappears, and the burden shifts back to the plaintiff " to demonstrate that the proffered reason was not the true reason for the employment decision." Id. at 256, 101 S.Ct. at 1095. The plaintiff " cannot recast the reason but must meet it head on and rebut it." Wilson, 376 F.3d at 1088. The plaintiff must show " weaknesses, implausibilities, inconsistencies, incoherencies, or contradictions" in the employer's

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rationale. Combs, 106 F.3d at 1538 (quotation marks omitted). To do so, the plaintiff may rely on the evidence offered initially to establish the prima facie case. Wilson, 376 F.3d at 1088.

At this stage, the plaintiff's burden of rebutting the employer's proffered reasons " merges with the [plaintiff's] ultimate burden of persuading [the finder of fact] that she has been the victim of intentional discrimination." Burdine, 450 U.S. at 256, 101 S.Ct. at 1095. Thus, " the question becomes whether the evidence," when viewed as a whole, " yields the reasonable inference that the employer engaged in the alleged discrimination." Smith v. Lockheed-Martin Corp., 644 F.3d 1321, 1326 (11th Cir.2011). Put another way, the issue is whether there is " a convincing mosaic of circumstantial evidence that would allow a jury to infer intentional discrimination." Id. at 1328 (quotation marks and footnote omitted). 2

We have recognized that " [a]fter a trial on the merits, [we] should not revisit whether the plaintiff established a prima facie case." Cleveland v. Home Shopping Network, Inc., 369 F.3d 1189, 1194 (11th Cir.2004); accord Tidwell v. Carter Prods., 135 F.3d 1422, 1426 n. 1 (11th Cir.1998) (" Our task is not to revisit whether the plaintiff below successfully established a prima facie case of discrimination." ); Richardson v. Leeds Police Dep't, 71 F.3d 801, 806 (11th Cir.1995) (" [T]he district court erred by visiting whether [the plaintiff]...

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