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Ramsey v. American Air Filter Co.

August 30, 1985

PALMER RAMSEY, SR., PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
AMERICAN AIR FILTER CO., INC., DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois, Rock Island Division. No. 84-4032, Michael M. Mihm, Judge.

Author: Pell

Before WOOD and FLAUM, Circuit Judges, and PELL, Senior Circuit Judge.

PELL, Senior Circuit Judge

Plaintiff-appellee, Palmer Ramsey, brought suit against his former employer, American Air Filter Co., Inc., alleging that it discriminated against him on the basis of race in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Specifically, plaintiff charged that defendant discriminated against him by treating him differently from other, nonminority employees by denying him certain transfer opportunities, by subjecting him to improper lay-off procedures, and by subjecting him to racial harassment. After a jury trial, the jury returned a verdict in plaintiff's favor, assessing compensatory and punitive damages in the following amounts: $50,000.00 compensatory damages for lost wages and benefits, $75,000.00 compensatory damages for mental distress, and $150,000.00 punitive damages. The trial court ordered a remittitur, which plaintiff accepted, reducing the $50,000.00 award for lost wages to $37,486.00. On appeal, defendant challenges both the jury's finding of liability and the amount of damages awarded.

I. The Facts and Proceedings Below

Plaintiff began his employment with defendant in 1967 in its Environmental Control Division plant in Moline, Illinois, and, with various exceptions, continued to work for defendant until August 8, 1982, the date of his final lay-off. His seniority rights expired on February 1, 1984. For the most part, during his tenure with defendant, plaintiff worked on and around a paint conveyor line. Until November 1971, plaintiff worked as an Insulmat operator, a position off the conveyor line that involved spraying insulating material on air conditioning and heating components. Due to health complications, plaintiff bid off the Insulmat operator position and received the job of paint conveyorman, a position on the conveyor line that involved placing and removing sheet metal components on the line. In addition to conveyorman, two other classifications worked on the line: spray painter and titrator. The titrator position involved mixing paints and overseeing the dipping process. Plaintiff remained a paint conveyorman until his last lay-off in 1982.

On April 23, 1982, plaintiff filed a complaint against defendant, alleging that it discriminated against him on the basis of race in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 by subjecting him to terms and conditions of employment different from those that applied to nonminority employees. In particular, plaintiff claimed that he suffered the following acts of discrimination

in November 1978, despite plaintiff's request to fill a temporary opening in the titrator job, defendant filled the position with an employee who possessed less seniority that plaintiff;

2) in March 1980, defendant discriminated against plaintiff in the selection of a permanent replace- ment for the position of titrator;

3) in September 1980, defendant subjected plaintiff to improper lay-off procedures in conjunction with a September 8, 1980, lay-off of the entire second shift paint line;

4) during the last four or five years of plaintiff's tenure, defendant enforced disciplinary measures against plaintiff in a discriminatory manner; and,

5) during the last four or five years of plaintiff's tenure, defendant subjected plaintiff to racial harassment by yelling at him more frequently than nonminority employees and by addressing him by racial slurs.

After a five-day trial, the jury returned a verdict in plaintiff's favor. On the special verdict form, the jury answered "yes" to the questions, first, whether defendant intentionally subjected plaintiff to different terms and conditions of employment because of his race and, second, whether defendant's conduct was malicious, wanton, or oppressive. The jury awarded $125,000.00 in compensatory damages, $50,000.00 for lost wages and $75,000.00 for mental distress, and punitive damages in the amount of $150,000.00. Defendant then moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or, in the alternative, for a new trial. The district court denied defendant's motions with respect to the verdict and awards pertaining to mental distress and to punitive damages, but it granted defendant's motion for a new trial with respect to the verdict and award pertaining to lost wages and benefits unless plaintiff accepted a remittitur of $12,514.00. Plaintiff consented to the remittitur, reducing the lost wages award to $37,486.00.

Defendant raises three issues on appeal. First, defendant claims that the district court erred in denying defendant's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Second, defendant argues that the district court erred in denying defendant's motion for a new trial. Specifically, defendant contends that a new trial is warranted because the previous trial was marred by the court's admission of certain prejudicial evidence, by certain prejudicial comments made by plaintiff's counsel during closing argument, and by the court's failure to give proper instructions to the jury. Third, defendant challenges as grossly excessive the jury's award of compensatory damages for mental distress and its award of punitive damages.

II. Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict

According to defendant, the district court erred by denying defendant's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict because the jury's verdict was not supported by substantial evidence. As this court recently state, "the standard for determining whether a judgment notwithstanding the verdict should be granted is whether the evidence presented, combined with all reasonable inferences permissibly drawn therefrom, is sufficient to support the verdict when viewed in a light most favorable to the party against whom the motion is directed." Tice v. Lampert Yards, Inc., 761 F.2d 1210, 1213 (7th Cir. 1985). In reviewing a district court's denial of judgment notwithstanding the verdict, the reviewing court must review the record to ensure that more than a mere scintilla of evidence support the verdict. La Montagne v. American Convenience Products, Inc., 750 F.2d 1405, 1410 (7th Cir. 1984). The court, in reviewing the record, must resolve all conflicts in the evidence in favor of the prevailing party and may not judge the credibility of the witnesses. Id. For this reason, the court rarely will conclude that a district court improperly refused to enter judgment notwithstanding the verdict. McKinley v. Trattles, 732 F.2d 1320, 1323-24 (7th Cir. 1984); Clemons v. Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, Ltd., 596 F.2d 746, 748 (7th Cir. 1979), cert. denied, 451 U.S. 969, 101 S. Ct. 2044, 68 L. Ed. 2d 347 (1981).

Although plaintiff brought this suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1981, rather than under Title VII, this court has acknowledged that the same standards that govern Title VII liability also govern section 1981 liability. See Mason v. Continental Illinois National Bank, 704 F.2d 361, 364 (7th Cir. 1983); Flowers v. Crouch-Walker Corp., 552 F.2d 1277, 1281 n.3 (7th Cir. 1977). According to the Supreme Court, in a Title VII suit, a plaintiff must make out a prima facie case of discrimination, which, if he or she is successful, defendant must meet by articulating a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its action. McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802, 93 S. Ct. 1817, 36 L. Ed. 2d 668 (1973). Plaintiff then may rebut defendant's reason by proving that the alleged legitimate reason was simply a pretext designed to hid the discrimination. Id. at 804. With respect to the first element that a plaintiff must prove in a Title VII case, this court explained in a recent decision that the plaintiff can establish a prima facie case of discrimination by demonstrating that he or she is otherwise similarly situated to members of the unprotected class, and that he or ...


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