Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 93 C 2290 James F. Holderman, Judge.
Before ESCHBACH, MANION, and EVANS, Circuit Judges.
DECIDED SEPTEMBER 12, 1996
In 1992 the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Chicago ("Coca-Cola") promoted five men into newly created upper-management positions. Because she was not one of those promoted, Karen Emmel filed a Title VII sexual discrimination complaint. Emmel was then passed over for another set of upper-management positions and filed a second complaint. These two complaints eventually reached a district court jury which ruled that Coca-Cola had violated Emmel's rights when it failed to promote her. In addition to lost wages of $43,000, the jury awarded Emmel $7,325 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages. The district court refused Coca-Cola's motion for a new trial but lowered the punitive damage award to $292,675 so that the total award did not exceed the $300,000 statutory cap. Coca-Cola argues that the evidence does not support the verdict, that the district court erred in denying Coca-Cola a new trial, and that the punitive damages were excessive. We affirm.
I. Sufficiency of Evidence
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits an employer from "discriminat[ing] against any individual with respect to  compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's . . . sex." 42 U.S.C. sec. 2000e-2(a)(1)(1994). Two methods exist for proving that an employer violated this prohibition. Troupe v. May Dept. Stores Co., 20 F.3d 734, 736 (7th Cir. 1994) (explaining direct and circumstantial evidence in discrimination cases). The first is by direct evidence. This would take the form, for instance, of an employer stating "I did not hire you because you are a woman." Since employers are usually careful not to generate such evidence, see, e.g., Castlemarn v. Acme Boot Co., 959 F.2d 1417, 1420 (7th Cir. 1992) (noting that direct evidence of intent to discriminate is rarely found), the Supreme Court, in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973), articulated an indirect burden-shifting approach to proving discrimination cases. Under this method, a Title VII plaintiff has the burden of establishing a prima facie case of unlawful discrimination. The prima facie case requires evidence that she was in a protected class, here a woman; that she was qualified for the promotion; that she did not receive the promotion despite her qualifications; and that a person not in the protected class was promoted instead. Id. at 802; Bruno v. City of Crown Point, Ind., 950 F.2d 355, 363 (7th Cir. 1991), cert. denied, 505 U.S. 1207 (1992). Once the plaintiff has established such a case, an inference of discrimination exists and the burden of production shifts to the defendant employer to "clearly set forth, through the introduction of admissible evidence, reasons for its actions which, if believed by the trier of fact, would support a finding that unlawful discrimination was not the cause of the employment action." St. Mary's Honor Center v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 507 (1993) (emphasis in original) (quotations omitted). Once this burden of production is met, any inference of discrimination evaporates. To prove unlawful discrimination at this stage, the plaintiff must demonstrate to the jury that the reason proffered by the employer was mere pretext, an explanation designed to obscure the unlawful discriminatory employment action. Our review after a trial on the merits is the same whether the evidence is direct or indirect: did the plaintiff prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant intentionally and unlawfully discriminated in the employment practice in question. Hybert v. Hearst Corp., 900 F.2d 1050, 1054 (7th Cir. 1990). "The ultimate burden of persuading the trier of fact that the defendant intentionally discriminated against the plaintiff remains at all times with the plaintiff." Bruno v. City of Crown Point, Ind., 950 F.2d at 363 (quoting Texas Dept. of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 253 (1991)).
In this case, Emmel presented both direct and indirect evidence that Coca-Cola violated Title VII. Based on that evidence, the jury found for Emmel. Pursuant to Rule 50(b), Coca-Cola moved for judgment as a matter of law, but the district court denied the motion. Coca-Cola appeals that denial.
We review the denial of a motion for judgment as a matter of law de novo. McNabola v. CTA, 10 F.3d 501, 515 (7th Cir. 1993). Our inquiry is limited to "whether the evidence presented, combined with all reasonable inferences permissibly drawn therefrom, is sufficient to support the verdict when viewed in the light most favorable to the party against whom the motion is directed." Id. at 515 (quoting Tapia v. City of Greenwood, 965 F.2d 336, 338 (7th Cir. 1992)). In other words, we are limited to assessing whether no rational jury could have found for the plaintiff. EEOC v. G-K-G, Inc., 39 F.3d 740, 745 (7th Cir. 1994). Because witness credibility is often crucial in discrimination suits we apply a stringent standard in reviewing the jury's verdict. Christie v. Foremost Ins. Co., 785 F.2d 584, 586 (7th Cir. 1986). "[W]e are particularly careful in employment discrimination cases to avoid supplanting our view of the credibility or weight of the evidence for that of both the jury (in its verdict) and in the judge (in not interfering with the verdict)." Hybert v. Hearst Corp., 900 F.2d 1050, 1054 (7th Cir. 1990).
With these standards in mind, we consider the evidence Karen Emmel presented to the jury. Coca-Cola expends considerable effort rearguing why the testimony attributing statements to its officers was not credible and treating evidence it submitted at trial in its defense as the facts controlling the case. It does so despite the clear message from the verdict that the jury did not find that evidence credible. When the losing party moves for a judgment as a matter of law, we view all contested facts in the favor of the nonmoving party. McNabola, 10 F.3d at 515; see Avitia v. Metropolitan Club of Chicago, Inc., 49 F.3d 1219, 1224 (7th Cir. 1995) (warning appellants not to treat contested testimony of losing party's witnesses as facts or risk having brief stricken). In doing so, we must accept Emmel's evidence supporting the verdict as true. The facts set out here are either uncontested or, if contested, are those which support the verdict.
Coca-Cola hired Karen Emmel in 1976. She began her career as an account manager. From there she became a route manager (later known as "district sales manager") in 1981, a supervisory position she held for seven years. There, Emmel directly supervised approximately sixteen employees, and was responsible for training, discipline, and account paperwork for her sales staff and the trade and rental accounts for her route. In 1986 Emmel was recognized as "route manager of the year." In 1988 Emmel moved from route manager in the bottle/can division to district sales manager in the syrup division. Coca-Cola Bottling had just purchased the syrup division sight unseen from Coke USA and Emmel moved at the request of the general manager of the new division, Ed Jancauskas. Emmel had no prior experience in syrup sales; the job required that she learn everything about the new division. In 1989, because of her expertise in both syrup and cans, John Walsh, vice president of sales for the north zone *fn1 offered Emmel the position of cold drink specialist. The position was presented as a positive career move, and required that she maintain exclusive purchase agreements with existing accounts, develop new business, and increase the services provided to Coca-Cola's clients. As a cold drink specialist, Emmel's office was physically located in the front office of the north zone headquarters, between the region managers' offices and across the hall from north zone vice president John Walsh to whom she reported directly through July 8, 1992. Walsh "always had admiration for the work [Emmel did] for the company."
In July 1992 Coca-Cola created five new upper-management positions called area development managers (ADMs). In a memo from Coca-Cola president and CEO William O'Rourke and vice president for company-wide sales, H.Thomas Noxon, the new positions were revealed simultaneously with the announcement of the personnel who would fill them. All five employees promoted to the new ADM positions had considerably shorter careers with Coca-Cola and much less time in supervisory positions than Emmel. Additionally, all five were men. Upon learning she had been passed over, Emmel confronted vice president Walsh and asked for an explanation. He stated first "we just felt these guys deserved promotion." Emmel pressed him further, noting that she had more qualifications and experience than any of those promoted. Walsh said "Let's close the door and speak honestly." Upon doing so he advised, "Karen, you know, as we all know, they wanted men in these positions in the past to run--to have D licenses [a truck driver's license] and to run strike duty." Emmel asked "[W]as I qualified for any of these positions?" to which Walsh replied "You are the only other one qualified." Walsh made no mention of any deficiencies in Emmel's qualifications, the justification Coca-Cola would later offer at trial for passing over Emmel. After trying unsuccessfully to speak with O'Rourke and Noxon, Emmel filed a complaint with the EEOC which evolved into the lawsuit before us. After Emmel filed suit, in September 1993, Coca-Cola announced the creation of three new upper-management "key account executive positions." The announcement, again in the form of a memo from the company president and vice president, announced three male employees who were being promoted into the new positions. Two of them were men who had been promoted to ADM in July of 1992 despite considerably less time with Coca-Cola and less supervisory experience (even with the additional year and two months in their ADM position). The third, who had only been with Coca-Cola since February 1990, was promoted to key account executive directly from district sales manager, a supervisory position he had held for just over ...