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O'Donnell v. Caine Weiner Co., LLC

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

August 14, 2019

Patricia O'Donnell, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Caine Weiner Company, LLC, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued May 21, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 14 C 6839 - Jorge L. Alonso, Judge.

          Before Flaum, Kanne, and Sykes, Circuit Judges.


         Patricia O'Donnell filed suit against her former employer, Caine Weiner Company, LLC, alleging unequal pay due to gender discrimination and retaliation. She lost on all counts at a jury trial. She filed a motion for a new trial on numerous grounds, including that the allegedly erroneous jury instructions and verdict forms prejudiced her case, but the district court denied her motion. We affirm.

         I. Background

         Patricia O'Donnell learned that her employer paid her less than her male peers and came to believe that sex-based discrimination explained the pay disparity. She attempted to raise this issue with several people inside the company, including human resources and the Chief Commercial Officer. O'Donnell told multiple Caine Weiner officials that she was going to file a complaint with the EEOC.

         O'Donnell shared a desk with her supervisor where she apparently discovered performance evaluations of a couple of her male colleagues in a drawer. O'Donnell believed the evaluations confirmed that Caine Weiner paid the male colleagues more than it paid her for substantially the same work. She took the performance evaluations, made copies of them, and prepared to submit them to the EEOC as proof for her claim. After Caine Weiner learned that O'Donnell took other employees' performance reports without authorization, it initially suspended her and ultimately terminated her. O'Donnell believes she was terminated in retaliation for her complaints about unequal pay, but Caine Weiner maintains that it terminated her for stealing personnel documents.

         O'Donnell subsequently filed this action in the Northern District of Illinois alleging four claims: (1) sex-based wage discrimination under the Equal Pay Act (29 U.S.C. § 206(d)); (2) sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C. § 2000 et seq.); (3) Retaliation under Title VII; and (4) Retaliation under the Fair Labor Standards Act (29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3)). Caine Weiner moved for summary judgment, but the district court denied the motion.

         Prior to trial, the parties submitted various motions in limine and proposed jury instructions. O'Donnell submitted three separate sets of proposed jury instructions. The defense also submitted its own proposed instructions. The case proceeded to trial and the district court administered instructions based on the Seventh Circuit's Model Instructions.

         The jury returned a verdict for Caine Weiner on all counts. O'Donnell moved for a new trial, raising a host of alleged trial errors. Relevant to this appeal, O'Donnell claimed that the jury instructions and the verdict forms incorrectly instructed the jury on the law related to her claims. She further argued that the instructions and verdict form were confusing to the jury. O'Donnell also maintained that the district court improperly allowed Caine Weiner to assert an affirmative defense based on her previous salary amounts, especially because Caine Weiner initially failed to raise that defense in its answer to her amended complaint. O'Donnell lastly argued that the district court erred by excluding expert testimony on damages from a forensic economist.

         The district court denied O'Donnell's motion for a new trial, noting that her objections to the jury instructions, verdict forms, and the exclusion of her expert witness all related to the issue of damages. Because the jury found in Caine Weiner's favor on all counts on the merits, any error related to the calculation of damages could not have prejudiced O'Donnell's case.

         II. Analysis

         O'Donnell makes two arguments on appeal.[1] First, she challenges the jury instructions and verdict forms administered by the district court as legally erroneous and confusing. Second, O'Donnell argues that the district court abused its discretion when it excluded her damages expert's testimony. Altogether, O'Donnell believes the district court's alleged errors resulted in a fundamentally unfair trial. We review the district court's ...

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