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Pickett v. Sheridan Health Care Center

August 4, 2009

DANIELLE L. PICKETT, PLAINTIFF,
v.
SHERIDAN HEALTH CARE CENTER, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rebecca R. Pallmeyer United States District Judge

Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Danielle Pickett is a housekeeper for the defendant, Sheridan Health Care Center ("Sheridan"), a nursing home for elderly people with physical and mental infirmities. Pickett alleged that she was sexually harassed by residents at Sheridan, and that on June 30, 2006 Sheridan, in violation of Title VII, terminated her in retaliation for her complaints about these incidents. Concluding that Sheridan had taken affirmative steps to address the sexual harassment, the court granted summary judgment on that claim, but proceeded to trial on Pickett's retaliation claim. On September 3, 2008, the jury entered a verdict for Pickett and awarded her compensatory damages for emotional distress in the amount of $15,000 and punitive damages in the amount of $50,000. Sheridan has moved for a new trial or remittitur of the damage award. Pickett has moved for further equitable relief including back pay with interest, an injunction against further discrimination, expungement of her personnel file, and transfer to a different department. For the reasons explained here, Sheridan's motion is denied and Pickett's motion is granted in part and denied in part.

FACTS*fn1

Pickett is a resident of Zion, Illinois,where Sheridan is also located. (Tr. 196:20; 145:9.) Pickett began working for Sheridan on January 10, 2005 as a dietary aide and was transferred in September of that year to a position in housekeeping. (Tr. 197:6, 8; 225:13.) Pickett testified that Sheridan's residents subjected her to lewd remarks and inappropriate touching on two occasions between November 2005 and January 2006. (Tr. 200:19-22.) Sheridan responded by instructing Pickett not to clean those residents' rooms alone. (Tr. 233:4-11.) Finally, on June 24, 2006, a third incident occurred in which a resident cornered and groped Pickett. (Tr. 201:1, 23.) The police were called to respond to this incident the following day, but Pickett decided against filing a report with them. (Tr. 203:7.)

On June 27, 2006, Pickett, her union representative, and several managers including Sheridan's administrator, Paul Zeller, met to discuss the third incident and determine a remedy for the problem. (Tr. 204-05.) Pickett testified that she felt intimidated at that meeting and that some of the managers suggested that she had invited the resident's conduct. (Tr. 205:2-20.) It was agreed that Pickett would be reassigned to clean the first floor of the building, where no residents live, in order to minimize her contact with them. (Tr. 236:1-14.) No mention was made of any disciplinary action against Pickett, and she herself agreed to the reassignment. (Tr. 236:3-16.)

The next morning, June 28, 2006, Pickett met alone with Zeller in his office to further discuss Sheridan's response to the June 24th incident. (Tr. 210:21-25.) Zeller and Pickett testified to conflicting versions of what was said during the meeting, but it is clear that Pickett was dissatisfied that Sheridan had not removed the resident from the facility. (Tr. 157:10-21.) Presumably putting herself in the role of a customer of Sheridan, Pickett urged that such action should be taken, telling Zeller, "the customer is always right." (Tr. 157:24) Pickett testified that Zeller responded to this comment by suggesting that "maybe [she] should go clean some stores," and that this caused her to fear that her job was in jeopardy. (Tr. 211:1-3; 212:15-17.) Zeller himself denied recollection of that statement. (Tr. 158:2.) Pickett became upset and began to cry (tr. 158:25; 211:5), and according to her testimony, she then told Zeller that her children were depending on her and that she did not want to lose her job with Sheridan. (Tr. 211:10-13.) Directly after her meeting with Zeller, Pickett left work and went home without informing the management at Sheridan or asking permission. (Tr. 243:17-25.)

Not sure of her employment status, Pickett called Zeller the next day, June 29, 2006, to confirm and explain that she understood that she should not have walked out, but had done so because she was upset. (Tr. 214:19-25; 215:1.) Zeller told her that he would have to discuss her conduct in walking off the job with Sheridan's vice president of operations, one Mrs. Paynter. (Tr. 161:16-18; 215:2-3.) Zeller called Pickett back on June 30 and informed her that he was terminating her employment. (Tr. 215:19-20.) Zeller apparently did not give Pickett a specific reason for this decision, merely relating that it was "best [Pickett and Sheridan] part ways." (Tr. 162:7.) At trial, Zeller testified that Pickett had been terminated for abandoning her job. (Tr. 167:21-22.)

Zeller testified that Pickett filed a discrimination claim with the E.E.O.C. "three or four weeks later." (Tr. 167:25.)*fn2 According to Zeller, about a week after receiving notice of this claim, on or about July 28, 2006, Sheridan or its attorneys offered to allow Pickett to return to her former employment. (Tr. 168:7-12; 244:4.) The offer was not conditioned on Pickett dropping her legal claim, (tr. 244:14), but she refused it. At trial, Picket explained that she turned the offer down because it did not include back pay for the time since the June 30th termination and because she was unsatisfied with Sheridan's approach to reducing her potential exposure to further offensive behavior. (Tr. 244:19-24.) Sheridan repeated the offer on August 23, 2006 and again on September 25, 2006, but Pickett refused each time. (Tr. 245:25; 260:4.) Pickett finally accepted the offer on or about January 9, 2007 and returned to work on January 23d. (Tr. 261:20; 262:8.)

Pickett testified that though she held some odd jobs between June 30, 2006 and January 23, 2007 (tr. 268), she was unable to pay her bills, was nearly evicted from her apartment and was forced to rely on charities for food, clothing, and Christmas gifts for her children. (Tr. 217: 12-25.) Pickett also testified regarding the distress she experienced; she explained that her upbringing had caused her to be reluctant to seek public assistance, and that she felt badly that her children saw her out of work. (Tr. 221:3-11.) Pickett admitted that she did not seek medical attention for emotional distress in the time between her termination and first offer of reinstatement or at any other time. (Tr. 264:9.)

Sheridan maintains a staff of 230 employees. (Tr. 145:18.) Prior to Pickett's termination, it had posted information about the federal laws on employment discrimination (tr. 166:13-23), and supplied its employees with a handbook detailing its own employment policies (tr. 164:9-22), and a copy of its anti-retaliation policy. (Tr. 148:19.)

I. New Trial

The court may order a new trial pursuant to FED. R. CIV. P. 59(a) "if the jury's verdict is against the clear weight of the evidence or the trial was unfair to the moving party." David v. Caterpillar, Inc., 324 F.3d 851, 863 (7th Cir. 2003). The court does not independently re-assess whether the plaintiff has met her burden of proof, but rather determines whether there is a "reasonable basis" for the jury's verdict. See Moore v. Tuelja, 546 F.3d 423, 427 (7th Cir. 2008); cf. Harvey v. Office of Banks and Real Estate, 377 F.3d 698, 708 (7th Cir. 2004) (explaining that after the jury delivers its verdict, the court must drop the McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 US 792, 802--03 (1973), burden-shifting framework and look instead to the "totality of the evidence").

Sheridan asserts that it is entitled to a new trial because (1) the evidence of retaliation was insufficient to support the jury's verdict; (2) admission of evidence pertaining to details of the third-party conduct animating Pickett's sexual harassment claim was erroneous and prejudicial; and (3) some of Plaintiff's counsel's statements to the jury in closing were improper and prejudicial.*fn3 As ...


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