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Employers Know That Instructions Matter

ABSTRACT: The Missouri Supreme Court reverses and remands an employment discrimination and retaliation case, in favor of employer-defendant, due to prejudice resulting from an improper submission of a jury instruction.

On June 28, 2016, the Missouri Supreme Court made clear the importance of ensuring that the evidence presented at trial substantially supports the submitted jury instructions, especially with instructions that are disjunctive or proffer alternative theories.

In Ross-Paige v. Saint Louis Metropolitan Police Department, et al., the Court heard an appeal by the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department (“SLMPD”) and individually named Defendants from the Circuit Court of the City of Saint Louis.  A jury found in favor of Plaintiff Tanisha Ross-Paige, a former police officer, for her claim of retaliation in violation of the Missouri Human Rights Act (“MHRA”), but not her discrimination claim.  Ross-Paige was awarded $300,000 in compensatory damages and $7.2 million in punitive damages, which were then adjusted following post-trial motions, to a total of $510,190 in compensatory damages and $2,550,950 in punitive damages.  

Ross-Paige’s claims originated from her complaint for sexual harassment and retaliation with the SLMPD.  Ross-Paige alleged that the harassment began back in 2007 when she worked as a police officer for the SLMPD, continued through her transfer to the canine unit, and on until her release in October 2012 after being notified that she had reached maximum medical improvement and had sustained permanent injuries precluding her from resuming her employment as a police officer.  Ross-Paige then filed and applied for a disability pension through the police retirement system of St. Louis and long-term disability through SLMPD’s human resources department.

While the jury did find in favor of the employer-Defendants on the discrimination claim, Defendants (who lost on the retaliation claim) filed motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and for a new trial.  Defendants raised challenges to Jury Instruction No. 8, the verdict director, and juror misconduct.  The trial court denied Defendants’ motions, prompting Defendants’ appeal, which was taken up by the Missouri Supreme Court.  

On appeal, Defendants asserted both instructional error as to Jury Instruction No. 8, and juror misconduct – but the Supreme Court decided only the former issue.  Defendants argued that Jury Instruction No. 8 was improperly submitted, because the instruction submitted alternative theories of recovery and there was not substantial evidence to support each theory of recovery.   Jury Instruction No. 8 read:

Your verdict must be for [Ross-Paige] and against … the [b]oard …on [Ross-Paige’s] claim of unlawful retaliation if you believe: 

First, [D]efendants discharged [Ross-Paige] or gave [her] a negative write up or assigned [her] with unfavorable shifts or denied [her] paid time off to attend training or failed to allow [her] to apply for the sergeant’s exam or unjustly refused or delayed [her] disability claim or created a severe and pervasive hostile work environment for [Ross-Paige], and

Second, [Ross-Paige’s] complaint of sexual harassment or refusal to submit to sexual advances was a contributing factor in such discriminatory acts, and 

Third, as a direct result of such conduct, [Ross-Paige] sustained damage.

The Court held that Jury Instruction No. 8’s disjunctive verdict-directing nature - alleging seven different types of adverse employment actions - required that each alternative theory presented must be supported by substantial evidence, in order to go to the jury.  Defendants argued that the instruction did not meet the substantial evidence standard. 

The Supreme Court found that not only were portions of the instruction not supported by substantial evidence, but that the evidence presented by Ross-Paige was misleading to the jury and prejudicial to Defendants for the reason that it created an appearance that one of the Defendants in the case had not paid Ross-Paige, which was incorrect since the police retirement system, a non-party, had not paid her.  The Court concluded that the error was prejudicial to defendants, because it was entirely possible that the jury’s verdict in Plaintiff’s favor had been based on a theory for which there was no support in the record.  The Court therefore reversed and remanded the case to the Circuit Court for a new trial, underscoring the point that jury instructions clearly matter, and that disjunctive verdict directors deserve special attention.  As such, it appears that unless every element of a disjunctive verdict director has evidentiary support, a defendant may have a valid basis for challenging an adverse jury verdict, on the grounds that portions of the instruction were improperly submitted.