Beretta U.S.A. Corp. v. Santos

Decision Date01 September 1997
Docket NumberNo. 1024,1024
PartiesBERETTA U.S.A. CORP. v. Peter SANTOS. ,
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

Jerrold A. Thrope (Gordon, Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger & Hollander, L.L.C., on the brief), Baltimore, for appellant.

Michael L.Hecht (Surell Brady, Gregory G. Hopper, Baltimore, and Maurene Epps Webb, Acting Deputy County Attorney, Shalisha Ivy, Asst. County Attorney, Upper Marlboro, on the brief), for appellee.



Beretta U.S.A. Corp. ("Beretta"), appellant, appeals from an order of the Circuit Court for Prince George's County affirming a decision of the Prince George's County Human Relations Commission (the "Commission"). The Commission found that appellant illegally discharged Peter Santos, appellee, 1 in retaliation for a complaint filed with the Commission by Mr. Santos, in which Mr. Santos claimed that Beretta had discriminated against him. The Commission ordered Beretta to cease and desist from such conduct and awarded appellee $37,690.80 in lost wages and $20,000.00 in damages for embarrassment and humiliation. Beretta presents the following questions for review, which we have rephrased and reordered:

I. Was the Commission's finding of retaliation supported by substantial evidence?

II. Did the Commission err in awarding damages for humiliation and embarrassment?

III. Did the Commission violate its own rules when the Commission members who awarded back pay and damages did not participate in the hearings at which testimony was offered?

At oral argument, we raised, nostra sponte, the additional issue of whether we have jurisdiction to hear the appeal. Thereafter, we granted the parties leave to file supplemental memoranda on the jurisdictional issue; appellant filed a supplemental memorandum, but appellee did not.

For the reasons that follow, we shall vacate, in part, the order of the circuit court, and remand for further proceedings.

Factual Background

Beretta manufactures firearms at a plant in Accokeek, Maryland. The machine factory at the plant has four major lines: the frame line, the barrel line, the small parts line, and the slide line. Operators on each line are supervised by set-up people, who function as the liaisons between the operators and the managers. In addition, set-up people are responsible for making adjustments to the machines on each of the lines, changing the cutting tools on the machines, and gauging the parts that are produced by the machines to ensure that they are within acceptable tolerance levels.

Mr. Santos was hired in August 1987, and he became a set-up person on the frame line in April 1991. 2 On December 11, 1991, appellee filed a complaint with the Commission, alleging discrimination based on race (black) and national origin (Puerto Rican). As a result of conciliation, appellant and appellee signed a settlement agreement, which was ratified by the Commission on February 24, 1992. Approximately two months later, on April 29, 1992, appellant terminated appellee.

The events that prompted appellee's discharge are hotly disputed. Appellant contends that on April 29, 1992, appellee yelled at Cleo Hall, a machine operator on the frame line who had complained to appellee that her machine was producing parts that were not within acceptable tolerance limits. As a result of this confrontation, appellant argues that Hall burst into tears and immediately complained to the operations manager, Tom Valorose. According to appellant, Mr. Santos had ordered Hall to continue operating the machine even though it was producing nonconforming parts. Consequently, Valorose fired appellee that day "for poor job performance," which Valorose explained as Santos's inability to deal with the operators and to "solve, diagnose, and correct problems."

On April 29, 1992, the day Mr. Santos was discharged from appellant's employ, he filed a complaint with the Commission alleging that his termination was in retaliation for filing the earlier complaint in December 1991. Beretta denied appellee's allegation and, instead, maintained that Mr. Santos had been terminated for cause. Accordingly, the Commission investigated Mr. Santos's claim. Thereafter, on January 14, 1994, the Commission found that there was reasonable cause to believe that appellant terminated appellee in retaliation for having filed the December 11, 1991, complaint. On April 7, 1994, the Commission unsuccessfully attempted to conciliate the dispute.

After the reasonable cause determination, Beretta answered appellee's complaint. Beretta asserted that Prince George's County Code § 2-195.01, which authorizes the Commission to order damages for humiliation and embarrassment, is unconstitutional on the grounds that (1) it violates Md. Const. Art. XI-A; (2) it violates the Express Powers Act, Md.Code (1957, 1996, Repl.Vol., 1997 Cum.Supp.), Art. 25A; (3) it conflicts with general State law; (4) it is not local law; (5) it is an unlawful delegation of judicial power to an administrative agency; and (6) it violates Beretta's right to a jury trial. On April 25, 1994, the case was certified for public hearing before a three-member panel of the Commission. 3

Between October 1994 and February 1996, the hearing panel held seven days of public hearings. 4 After the fifth hearing on February 7, 1995, two of the three commissioners on the hearing panel were replaced. In an undated report, the hearing panel, composed of the three commissioners who were in place for the final two hearing dates, issued its findings of fact. In an order dated June 24, 1996, the Commission adopted the hearing panel's report. The hearing panel's report, which accompanied the Commission's order, stated, in pertinent part:


Testimony presented to the Commission revealed that a causal link existed between the filing of the discrimination complaint by [Mr. Santos] and [Mr. Santos's] termination. The Commission finds that [Mr. Santos's] charge is valid on the basis of retaliation discrimination.

Exhibits and testimony presented at the hearings revealed that employee skills and work performance are reviewed annually at Baretta [sic]. [Mr. Santos's] performance appraisals from 1987 to 1990 were very good and excellent. The appraisals presented were written while [Mr. Santos] was under the supervision of several people.

[Mr. Santos's] performance appraisals began to change in 1991. The appraisals reflected an overall evaluation of "fair" as opposed to "very good" and excellent. Testimony and employment records reflected that [Mr. Santos] was assigned to a new supervisor. Once [Mr. Santos] filed a discrimination charge in 1991, he was transferred to a different position and not provided with training. This seemed to be a set-up for failure. The Commission found that retaliation was the reason the complainant was reassigned to a different position without training. The Commission found that this move was intended to create a performance problem for Mr. Santos.

[Beretta] alleges that [Mr. Santos] was terminated for poor performance and poor problem solving skills. According to Baretta's [sic] performance criteria, poor performance involves relationships with other operators and the inability to solve problems. Testimony presented by Baretta's [sic] operations manager, Tom Vallrose [sic] reveals that [Mr. Santos] was fired because he failed to listen and knowingly ordered an employer [sic] to run bad parts. The Commission found that other employees had run bad parts but had only been reprimanded, not terminated.

Additionally, the Operations Manager questioned [Mr. Santos's] relationship with other operators based on [Mr. Santos's] alleged treatment of a specific employee, Cleo Hall. Mr. Vallrose believed that Mr. Santos' treatment of Ms. Hall caused her to burst into tears....

[Beretta] states that Mr. Santos was terminated because he was unable to gauge Ms. Hall's machine properly. Whether Mr. Santos could fix the machine was never determined because [Mr. Santos] was never given the chance to repair the machine. Even if [Mr. Santos] had been given a chance to repair the machine, [Mr. Santos] isn't a machinist and wasn't trained to repair machines. Additionally, the machine in question had a repair request lodged by [Mr. Santos] less than a week before the termination. However, at the time of the incident, the machine had not been repaired. This repair request leads the Commission to believe that machine error rather than human error caused bad parts to be produced.


The Commission finds that [Mr. Santos's] charge is valid on the basis of retaliation discrimination. [Beretta's] action in firing [Mr. Santos] was a direct retaliation for the claim of discrimination filed by [Mr. Santos] in December 1991. It is also apparent that the preponderance of the evidence of record supports the conclusion that [Mr. Santos] sustained his burden of showing that the firing was the result of retaliation.

As a result of the aforementioned, the Commission found for [Mr. Santos].


The Commission finds that [Mr. Santos] has suffered embarrassment, humiliation and a loss of wages. The Commission recommends that a partial re-hearing be held to determine damages to [Mr. Santos].

The Commission orders that [Beretta] cease and desist from this type of conduct in the future.

On July 24, 1996, appellant filed a motion for reconsideration, asserting, inter alia, that Prince George's County Code § 2-195.01, which authorizes damages for humiliation and embarrassment, conflicts with Md.Code (1957, 1994 Repl.Vol.), Art. 49B, § 11(e), which limits monetary relief for employment discrimination to back pay. On July 31, 1996, the Commission issued a notice to the parties announcing that the partial rehearing on damages would be held on August 26, 1996. The notice stated, in part: "Each party will have 30 minutes to present legal arguement [sic] limited...

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