Charles v. Leo, 17-P-1238

Citation96 Mass.App.Ct. 326,135 N.E.3d 252
Decision Date31 October 2019
Docket NumberNo. 17-P-1238,17-P-1238
Parties Chantal F. CHARLES v. Vivian LEO & another.
CourtAppeals Court of Massachusetts

Emma Quinn-Judge, Boston (Monica R. Shah, Boston, also present) for the plaintiff.

Kay H. Hodge, Boston (John M. Simon, Boston, also present) for the defendants.

Present: Rubin, Maldonado, & Lemire, JJ.


Chantal Charles sued Vivian Leo and the city of Boston (city) for racial discrimination and retaliation in violation of G. L. c. 151B. A jury found the defendants liable on both claims, and awarded Charles $888,159.83 in compensatory damages ($32,350 for back pay, $105,394.56 for front pay, $250,415.27 for retirement benefits, and $500,000 for emotional distress) and $10 million in punitive damages. Following trial, the defendants moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (n.o.v.),2 a new trial, and remittitur. The trial judge denied in full the motions for judgment n.o.v. and a new trial. She also declined to remit the compensatory damages award, but remitted the punitive damages award to $2 million, and an amended final judgment then entered. The defendants have appealed from the amended final judgment, arguing error in the denial of their motion for judgment n.o.v., the denial of their new trial motion, the denial of the remittitur motion as to compensatory damages, and the partial denial of the remittitur motion as to punitive damages. Charles has appealed, arguing error in the judge's reduction of the punitive damages award. We vacate the portion of the final amended judgment related to the punitive damages award and remand for reconsideration of the motion to remit those damages. In all other respects, we affirm the final amended judgment.

Facts. Given the applicable standards of review, we summarize the facts adduced at trial in the light most favorable to Charles, with additional facts reserved for discussion.

Charles is a black woman who, since 1986, has worked as a senior administrative assistant, paid at a grade of MM-5, in the trust office of the city's treasury department. Leo, a white woman, has worked in the treasury department since 1974, and has served as the first assistant collector-treasurer since 1996. From 1986 until 2011, Charles was supervised by Robert Fleming, who became the executive secretary of the trust office in 1990. Fleming initially reported directly to the collector-treasurer, but the trust office eventually became part of the treasury department, and Fleming began reporting to Leo in 2000.

The trust office manages trust funds left to the city for various purposes. Some, under the "small grants program," are left for purposes such as community activities, events, and cultural programs. Another fund, the Edward Ingersoll Browne Fund (Browne Fund), is used for beautification projects related to parks, squares, streets, and public art. Although Charles had originally been hired to do secretarial and operational work within the trust office, she quickly acquired management responsibilities over the small grants program and the Browne Fund. For instance, Fleming assigned her to "staff the Browne Fund committee and work with the various other [c]ity agencies in preparing applications for review, interacting with the community organizations that were making applications to the Browne Fund, making sure that when they came into the Browne Fund committee for their presentations, they delivered the material that they were required to, and the like." This often required Charles to meet with community groups after business hours because many members of those groups were volunteers with standard work schedules and therefore unavailable during the day. Fleming assigned Charles these responsibilities because of her "knowledge and her ability to ... accept the training that [the trust office was] providing." In connection with these responsibilities, she was given "functional" job titles of "fund manager" and "community service director." While these titles were not reflected in the city's civil service system, the title of community service director did appear on Charles's business card.

Charles's job conditions changed when the trust office was reorganized within the treasury department. Leo prohibited Charles from using her functional titles in memoranda and letters to the community. Leo also prohibited Charles from attending community meetings after 5:00 P.M. because Leo would not approve overtime, although Charles attended some such meetings anyway, without remuneration. Leo also prohibited Charles from accepting awards on the trust office's behalf. This included one instance in which the mayor gave an award to the trust office based on its management of a grant that was given to the parks department; the head of the parks department, a white man, accepted the award on Charles's behalf.

In November of 2010, Fleming had an unscheduled meeting with Leo and her deputy, Richard DePiano, a white man.

Leo accused Fleming of being a bad manager because he inadequately supervised Charles, whose behavior Leo described as "aloof, non-deferential, uppity." (Leo denied using the word "uppity," but a rational juror could have credited Fleming's version of events.) Leo then threatened to give Fleming a poor performance evaluation, and to take action to remove him as executive secretary of the trust office, if he did not give Charles an evaluation that Leo "believed was justified." According to Fleming, because Leo did not manage Charles on a daily basis, her order was inconsistent with the city's policy on performance reviews. Fleming refused to capitulate, and gave Charles a review he thought she deserved, which was "[a] good performance evaluation." Leo then gave Fleming a "very poor performance evaluation as executive secretary." This caused Fleming to retire early. The city's personnel files, which were maintained by Leo's assistant, ordinarily contained past performance reviews, but these two reviews were missing from the city's personnel files at the time of trial.

When Fleming retired, he was working on six or seven Browne Fund projects and performing account reconciliation work on the small grants program and the Browne Fund. He was also attending community meetings. Charles took over this work in addition to the six or seven Browne Fund projects that she had already been managing. She was neither compensated for the additional work nor instructed not to perform it, and she was not aware of anyone else who had taken over Fleming's other responsibilities.

Nonetheless, shortly after Fleming's retirement, Charles was marginalized from working on the Browne Fund. On September 15, 2011, she was contacted by Karin Goodfellow, the director of the Boston Art Commission, asking for input on revisions to the Browne Fund application procedure and guidelines -- Charles had originally drafted the application. Goodfellow's e-mail indicates that she had been discussing the revisions with Gail Hackett, the assistant to the collector-treasurer. This surprised Charles because both Goodfellow and Hackett did not "really deal with the Browne Fund."

The next day, Charles filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD). Shortly thereafter, Leo circulated a final version of the new Browne Fund application that had removed Charles as the contact person. The city's website had also removed Charles as the contact person and replaced her with Goodfellow. Furthermore, DePiano instructed Charles that she could no longer lead Browne Fund committee meetings, prepare Browne Fund summary reports, or work on the small grants program, all of which she had done prior to filing her MCAD complaint. She was also no longer given information on what occurred at the Browne Fund meetings. This impeded her ability to work with community organizations.

Although Charles was hoping to be promoted to Fleming's position after he retired, nobody suggested she apply to replace him, nor did she see a job posting for that position. She did, however, see a posting for a position called "supervisor of accounts," a title that existed in other parts of the treasury department but had never been used in the trust office. The job description differed substantially from the work Fleming had been performing: it "listed a lot of public awareness procedural awareness, [etc.]," whereas Fleming's responsibilities were focused on community engagement and project management. It also would be paid at a grade of MM-8; Fleming had been paid at MM-9. In addition, while Fleming's executive secretary position had not required a formal application, this position did. Charles did not apply because the job description and pay grade did not correspond to Fleming's executive secretary position, and because "Leo was never going to give [her] this job if [she] applied for it." At trial, DePiano referred to it as Fleming's position.

Ultimately, Andrew Niles, a white man, received the position, and began work in November of 2011. By his own admission, Niles "obviously wasn't qualified" to handle certain investment-related aspects of the job, and had been terminated for performance-related reasons from his previous job as a mutual fund accountant. (According to Fleming, Charles did not have experience handling investments either, but did have the ability to learn the required skills. Fleming also noted that DePiano had been trained in the relevant investment-related work on the job.)

When Niles began as supervisor of accounts, he was told his position was actually called "trust fund manager," which bears an obvious resemblance to the quasi-official title of "fund manager" that Leo had prohibited Charles from using. Indeed, when Leo introduced Niles to Charles as a "trust fund manager," Charles did not understand that Niles was her supervisor. She learned this only after Leo's assistant instructed her to get Niles's approval for a vacation request. After...

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