Rossova v. Charter Commc'ns, LLC

Decision Date12 April 2022
Docket NumberAC 43153
Citation211 Conn.App. 676,273 A.3d 697
Parties Lana ROSSOVA v. CHARTER COMMUNICATIONS, LLC
CourtConnecticut Court of Appeals

Proloy K. Das, Hartford, with whom were Patricia E. Reilly, New Haven, and Lorey Rives Leddy, Hartford, for the appellant (defendant).

John M. Walsh, Jr., New Haven, for the appellee (plaintiff).

Alexander, Clark and Palmer, Js.

CLARK, J.

The defendant, Charter Communications, LLC, appeals from the judgment of the trial court, rendered after a jury trial, in favor of the plaintiff, Lana Rossova. The plaintiff brought this action alleging pregnancy discrimination in violation of the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act, General Statutes § 46a-51 et seq., after the defendant terminated her employment.1 On appeal, the defendant claims that the court (1) improperly denied its motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict because the plaintiff failed to establish a prima facie case of pregnancy discrimination and that the defendant's reason for terminating her employment was a pretext for discrimination against her on the basis of her pregnancy and (2) miscalculated the plaintiff's damages. We disagree with the defendant's claims and, accordingly, affirm the judgment of the court.

The following facts, which the jury reasonably could have found, and procedural history are relevant to this appeal. In February, 2013, the defendant hired the plaintiff as a senior manager of digital marketing at its Stamford location. Per the defendant's policy, all new employees must successfully complete a ninety day probationary period. The plaintiff began her employment with the defendant on March 4, 2013, and worked directly for the director of the brand and creative strategy department, Jennifer Smith. The plaintiff and Smith were the only two employees in the department. Smith hired the plaintiff to fill a newly created position with the expectation that the plaintiff would improve communications between their department and the digital marketing team and make recommendations to increase sales.

According to the plaintiff, she and Smith had a great relationship during the first few weeks of her employment and had become friends. Smith invited the plaintiff to her office to collaborate on projects and brainstorm ideas on a daily basis. They sometimes spent one half of the day working together in Smith's office and ate lunch together. On March 29, 2013, the plaintiff told Smith that she was pregnant. Smith was happy for the plaintiff and shared that, coincidentally, she was also pregnant. Smith thereafter instructed the plaintiff to speak with the human resources manager, Karina Patel, to complete paperwork to start the process of finding a substitute for the plaintiff while she was on maternity leave. When speaking with Patel, the plaintiff inquired as to whether she would be able to work from home if she experienced complications related to her pregnancy. The plaintiff previously had experienced a high-risk pregnancy, which required her to be on bed rest for more than two months, and her physician had warned that she would encounter similar complications in subsequent pregnancies. Patel informed the plaintiff that, for liability reasons, she would not be permitted to work from home and then discussed the plaintiff's eligibility for leave.

A few days after informing Smith that she was pregnant, the relationship between the plaintiff and Smith deteriorated. Smith became less cordial than she had been prior to learning that the plaintiff was pregnant. When interacting with the plaintiff following the disclosure, Smith was curt and unfriendly. Although Smith still met with the plaintiff, she no longer invited the plaintiff into her office to brainstorm or collaborate on projects. According to the plaintiff, Smith never expressed concerns about the plaintiff's performance in the first month of her employment but began to micromanage her and criticize the quality of her work after the plaintiff disclosed her pregnancy. The plaintiff acknowledged that she had made some mistakes in her work but claimed that Smith never expressed dissatisfaction with the plaintiff's overall performance or communicated that her employment was in jeopardy of being terminated. On May 2, 2013, fewer than five weeks after the plaintiff disclosed her pregnancy, Smith informed the plaintiff that her employment was being terminated for poor performance. Smith did not elaborate on the reasons supporting her decision to terminate the plaintiff's employment or provide the plaintiff with any documents explaining her alleged performance deficiencies.

On September 20, 2013, the plaintiff filed a discrimination complaint with the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (commission). On October 21, 2014, after receiving a release of jurisdiction from the commission, the plaintiff commenced the present action, alleging that the defendant unlawfully had terminated her employment on the basis of pregnancy, in violation of General Statutes § 46a-60 (b) (7) (A).2 The parties agreed to bifurcate the issues of liability and damages at trial. The issue of liability was tried to a jury on December 6 and 7, 2016. Following the plaintiff's case-in-chief, the defendant moved for a directed verdict on the ground that the plaintiff had failed to establish a prima facie case of pregnancy discrimination. The court reserved its decision on the defendant's motion pursuant to Practice Book § 16-37.3

On December 9, 2016, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff. Thereafter, the defendant filed a posttrial motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, claiming that the plaintiff had failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination because the evidence was insufficient to establish that the termination of the plaintiff's employment occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination and, additionally, that the plaintiff had failed to carry her ultimate burden of establishing that the defendant's reason for terminating her employment was pretextual and that her dismissal was motivated by unlawful discrimination.4 In its memorandum of decision denying the defendant's motion, the court concluded that, although the evidence was not overwhelming, the jury reasonably could have inferred from the "relatively sharp" change in Smith's attitude toward the plaintiff and the abrupt commencement of complaints regarding the plaintiff's job performance after she disclosed her pregnancy that the defendant's proffered reason for terminating the plaintiff's employment was pretextual and that the defendant intentionally had discriminated against her on the basis of pregnancy.

On November 1, 2018, the issue of damages was tried to the court. The court awarded the plaintiff $315,187.83 in economic damages, as well as prejudgment and postjudgment interest and attorney's fees. This appeal followed. Additional facts and procedural history will be set forth as necessary.

I

On appeal, the defendant claims that the court improperly denied its motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict because the plaintiff failed to establish (1) a prima facie case of pregnancy discrimination and (2) that the defendant's reason for terminating the plaintiff's employment was a pretext for intentional discrimination.5

We begin our discussion of the defendant's claim that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law by setting forth the standard of review. "Appellate review of a trial court's refusal to render judgment notwithstanding the verdict occurs within carefully defined parameters." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Elliott v. Larson , 81 Conn. App. 468, 472, 840 A.2d 59 (2004). "We must consider the evidence, and all inferences that may be drawn from the evidence, in a light most favorable to the party that was successful at trial. ... This standard of review extends deference to the judgment of the judge and the jury who were present to evaluate witnesses and testimony." (Citation omitted.) Craine v. Trinity College , 259 Conn. 625, 635–36, 791 A.2d 518 (2002).

"Judgment notwithstanding the verdict should be granted only if we find that the jurors could not reasonably and legally have reached the conclusion that they did reach." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Elliott v. Larson , supra, 81 Conn. App. at 472–73, 840 A.2d 59. "Although it is the jury's right to draw logical deductions and make reasonable inferences from the facts proven ... it may not resort to mere conjecture and speculation." (Internal quotation marks omitted.)

Bagley v. Adel Wiggins Group , 327 Conn. 89, 102, 171 A.3d 432 (2017). "Whether the evidence presented by the plaintiff was sufficient to withstand a motion for [judgment notwithstanding the verdict] is a question of law, over which our review is plenary."6 Curran v. Kroll , 303 Conn. 845, 855, 37 A.3d 700 (2012).

"Two further fundamental points bear emphasis. First, the plaintiff in a civil matter is not required to prove [her] case beyond a reasonable doubt; a mere preponderance of the evidence is sufficient. Second, the well established standards compelling great deference to the historical function of the jury find their roots in the constitutional right to a trial by jury." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Madigan v. Housing Authority , 156 Conn. App. 339, 362, 113 A.3d 1018 (2015).

Having set forth the applicable standard of review, we now turn to the general principles governing a claim of pregnancy discrimination in violation of § 46a-60 (b) (7) (A). Although the language of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act differ slightly, our Supreme Court has observed that the legislature intended to make our state discrimination laws coextensive with the federal statute. State v. Commission on Human Rights & Opportunities , 211 Conn. 464, 469–70, 559 A.2d 1120 (1989). Thus, Connecticut courts often look to...

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