941 F.2d 543 (7th Cir. 1991), 90-1333, Soto v. Adams Elevator Equipment Co.

Docket Nº:90-1333, 90-1335.
Citation:941 F.2d 543
Party Name:30 Wage & Hour Cas. (BNA) 857, Mildred SOTO, Plaintiff-Appellee, Cross-Appellant, v. ADAMS ELEVATOR EQUIPMENT COMPANY, Defendant-Appellant, Cross-Appellee.
Case Date:August 22, 1991
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
 
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Page 543

941 F.2d 543 (7th Cir. 1991)

30 Wage & Hour Cas. (BNA) 857,

Mildred SOTO, Plaintiff-Appellee, Cross-Appellant,

v.

ADAMS ELEVATOR EQUIPMENT COMPANY, Defendant-Appellant, Cross-Appellee.

Nos. 90-1333, 90-1335.

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

August 22, 1991

Argued Feb. 12, 1991.

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Ernest T. Rossiello (argued), Chicago, Ill., for plaintiff-appellee, cross-appellant.

Richard H. Schnadig (argued), Bruce R. Alper, Vedder, Price, Kaufman & Kammholz, Chicago, Ill., for defendant-appellant cross-appellee.

Before CUDAHY and RIPPLE, Circuit Judges, and ESCHBACH, Senior Circuit Judge.

RIPPLE, Circuit Judge.

A jury found that Adams Elevator Equipment Company (Adams) had violated the Equal Pay Act by paying Mildred Soto less than a similarly situated male employee and by retaliating against her after she brought suit regarding the wage discrimination. In this appeal, Adams seeks reversal of the district court judgment denying its motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the wage discrimination claim and awarding statutory liquidated damages on that claim. Ms. Soto's cross-

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appeal seeks reversal of the district court judgment that she could not recover legal damages on the retaliation claim. Both parties challenge the court's calculation of attorney's fees. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we reverse in part the judgment of the district court.

I

BACKGROUND

A. Statutory Background

The Equal Pay Act (EPA or the Act) prohibits employers from paying similarly situated employees differently on the basis of sex:

No employer having employees subject to any provisions of this section shall discriminate, within any establishment in which such employees are employed, between employees on the basis of sex by paying wages to employees in such establishment at a rate less than the rate at which he pays wages to employees of the opposite sex in such establishment for equal work on jobs the performance of which requires equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and which are performed under similar working conditions, except where such payment is made pursuant to (i) a seniority system; (ii) a merit system; (iii) a system which measures earnings by quantity or quality of production; or (iv) a differential based on any other factor other than sex....

29 U.S.C. § 206(d)(1). The Act also prohibits retaliation, making it "unlawful for any person ... to discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint or instituted or caused to be instituted any proceeding under or related to this chapter." Id. § 215(a)(3).

Civil liability for both discrimination and retaliation is provided by section 216(b), which reads in pertinent part:

Any employer who violates the provisions of section 206 ... shall be liable to the employee or employees affected in the amount of their unpaid minimum wages, or their unpaid overtime compensation, as the case may be, 1 and in an additional equal amount as liquidated damages. Any employer who violates the provisions of section 215(a)(3) ... shall be liable for such legal or equitable relief as may be appropriate to effectuate the purposes of section 215(a)(3) ... including without limitation employment, reinstatement, promotion, and the payment of wages lost and an additional equal amount as liquidated damages.

Id. § 216(b). In a suit under section 216(b), a district court has discretion to decline to award part or all of the statutory liquidated damages if an "employer shows to the satisfaction of the court that the act or omission giving rise to such action was in good faith" and based on "reasonable grounds for believing that his act or omission was not a violation" of the statute. Id. § 260. A successful plaintiff in a section 216(b) action is entitled to "a reasonable attorney's fee to be paid by the defendant, and costs of the action." Id. § 216(b).

B. Facts

Adams is an Illinois-based manufacturer of replacement parts for elevators and escalators. Ms. Soto, a high school graduate, began working for Adams as a Production Control Clerk on February 26, 1981. She later held two other positions in Adams' Production Control Department: Production Planner and Inventory Analyst. In these positions, her responsibilities included maintaining suitable inventory levels and preparing reorder requisitions.

In October 1985, Adams' Senior Buyer resigned. Ms. Soto applied for the position, but was initially turned down for the promotion. However, she soon began helping out in Purchasing on a part-time basis and was transferred to Purchasing in February 1986. Allegedly because of her lack of purchasing experience, she did not receive

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an immediate salary increase at the time of her transfer. The parties sharply dispute whether Ms. Soto was made a Senior Buyer or merely a Buyer at the time of the transfer. However, both her February 1986 status change form and her March 1986 employee evaluation form list Ms. Soto as a Senior Buyer. See Def.Exs. 25, 27. In July 1987, without notifying her, Adams changed Ms. Soto's job title on the company's internal records from Senior Buyer to Buyer. See Def.Ex. 1.

Approximately one week earlier, Adams hired Randy Everett as a Senior Buyer. At the time of his appointment, Everett had a college degree, four years' purchasing experience, and eight years' production experience. His initial salary was $510 per week; Ms. Soto's salary was $432 per week at that time. Everett was responsible primarily for purchasing raw materials such as stainless steel, while Ms. Soto purchased items ranging from precious metals to customized parts to routine office supplies. During the second half of 1987 and all of 1988, Everett was responsible for purchases totaling $1,950,709; Ms. Soto was responsible for purchases totaling $1,439,440 for the same period. See Def.Ex. 72.

In September 1988, Ms. Soto learned for the first time that Adams was paying her less than Everett. (Her salary at the time was $450 per week; Everett's was $551 per week.) Shortly thereafter, without indicating that she knew of the wage disparity, Ms. Soto requested a salary increase from Adams' Vice President, Mike Weber. On October 12, 1988, Ms. Soto met with Weber and Personnel Manager Sandra Ward. Weber reminded Ms. Soto that she had not received a pay increase at the time of her initial transfer to Purchasing because of her lack of relevant experience. Ms. Soto finally told Weber that she had learned that she was being paid considerably less than Everett. Weber then asked Ms. Soto if she wanted "equity," and she replied affirmatively. Tr. of June 1, 1989 at 563. He promised to give Ms. Soto an answer the following Monday, but failed to do so. On October 25, 1988, Ms. Soto filed this suit against Adams under the EPA.

At trial, Ms. Soto claimed that she began to be treated differently at work after she filed the suit. In February 1989, her supervisor, Roy Lee, refused to let her leave work early to assist her young children, who were locked out of their home in freezing weather because they had forgotten their house key at school. Approximately one month later, Ms. Soto and Lee had a confrontation after she learned that someone had complained to top company officials about janitorial services for which she had contracted. Ms. Soto and Lee also had a disagreement when they met to discuss her February 1989 evaluation. Prior to the lawsuit, Lee, in February 1988, had signed her most recent evaluation, which still listed her as a Senior Buyer. In February 1989, however, Ms. Soto noticed that her evaluation now listed her as a Buyer. She pointed this out to Lee, who indicated that "he couldn't explain it, that that was management's decision." Id. at 590. Lee then "brought up the lawsuit. He said that I had done this to myself, that it wasn't his doing...." Id.

When Ms. Soto learned in approximately December 1988 that Adams was contending that she had been a Buyer rather than a Senior Buyer, she attempted to locate company files that would document that her supervisors had known that she was in fact a Senior Buyer. In February 1988, Lee and Weber had approved an order for a business card for Ms. Soto with the Senior Buyer job title. The paperwork for the order was contained in a file that normally was kept in a cabinet near Ms. Soto's desk. Ms. Soto discovered that the file was missing from the cabinet, but she eventually learned that Weber had the file in his office. When he gave her the file, it contained some of the documents, but not the art work with her name and job title.

After she filed suit, Ms. Soto also began to sense that her co-workers were isolating her. She did not receive an invitation to the annual company Christmas party, and no one acknowledged her birthday even though, as was customary at Adams, she brought in a cake to share with other employees. Ms. Soto testified that her experiences

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at Adams after she filed suit affected her seriously:

I cried almost every night on the way home from work, after the events in the office. I couldn't sleep at night. I was irritable. I couldn't concentrate on my work in the office. In two months I lost 20 pounds, because I just couldn't eat, I was nervous all the time.

Id. at 586.

C. District Court Proceedings

Ms. Soto initially claimed that Adams had violated the EPA by paying her less than Everett for substantially similar work. She later amended her complaint to add a retaliation count. 2 Her amended complaint also claimed that Adams had violated 42 U.S.C. § 1981 by discriminating and retaliating against her because of her Hispanic ancestry. The section 1981 claims were based on the same facts alleged in regard to the EPA claims.

After a four-day trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Ms. Soto on the EPA claims. 3 The jury awarded Ms. Soto $7,648 for back wages on the wage...

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