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Robinson v. Board of Supervisors For University of Louisiana System

Supreme Court of Louisiana

June 29, 2017

JAMES ROBINSON
v.
THE BOARD OF SUPERVISORS FOR THE UNIVERSITY OF LOUISIANA SYSTEM AND JOEY STRUM, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS CHIEF OF POLICE FOR THE UNIVERSITY OF LOUISIANA AT LAFAYETTE

         ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEAL, FIRST CIRCUIT, PARISH OF EAST BATON ROUGE

          GENOVESE, Justice.

         This suit for alleged age discrimination was instituted by plaintiff, James Robinson,[1] against his employer, the Board of Supervisors for the University of Louisiana System (ULL).[2] We granted this writ of certiorari to review the district court's judgment in accordance with a jury verdict finding that ULL discriminated against Robinson based on his age and awarding him damages. After reviewing the record of these proceedings, as to liability, we find no legal or manifest error in the jury's verdict in favor of plaintiff; thus, we affirm the jury's finding of age discrimination in favor of Robinson. However, as to damages, we find that the amount of the jury's damage award of $367,918.00 is not supported by the record. Therefore, we amend the judgment in part and affirm the jury's damage award as amended herein.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         In 1971, James Robinson, at the age of twenty-seven, was hired at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, presently the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (ULL), defendant herein, in the security department, which later became the campus police department. In 1980, Officer Robinson was promoted by Police Chief Joey Sturm and obtained the rank of Captain, the second highest rank in the chain of command of the ULLPD. Captain Robinson was appointed ULL police department (ULLPD) evidence custodian in 1999 by Chief Sturm, and, in that capacity, he was solely responsible for the contents of the evidence room.

         In 2002, Chief Sturm left the ULLPD and pursued other employment opportunities. During Chief Sturm's absence, from 2002 until his subsequent return to the ULLPD in 2009, Captain Robinson served as Interim Chief on three separate occasions. Near the end of 2010, Joey Sturm returned to ULL, again as campus police chief. At the direction of Chief Sturm, the ULLPD began to implement organizational and policy changes.[3] In keeping with Louisiana Civil Service Requirements, many ULLPD officers received salary and rank increases. Captain Robinson benefitted as a result thereof and was promoted by Chief Sturm to Police Major A, continuing as the second highest in the chain of command of the ULLPD, effective October 27, 2010. Major Robinson was then sixty-six years of age and the oldest ULLPD employee, with most of the employees being in their early forties.

         Near the end of 2010, O.K. Allen Hall, the building housing the evidence room, was scheduled to undergo renovations. Plans were made for the contents of the evidence room to be physically relocated to a new facility. In December 2010, Chief Sturm directed Major Robinson to conduct an audit of the contents of the evidence room prior to its relocation. Once accomplished, the evidence room custodian duty was to be transferred from Major Robinson to Officer Billy Abrams. The evidence room had been located in O.K. Allen Hall since 1999, and its relocation was a significant undertaking. Major Robinson requested the assistance of Officer Daniel Mendoza to accomplish the move to the new facility known as the Creamery Building.

         By the end of 2010, the ULLPD evidence room had been relocated to the Creamery; however, the audit had not been done. In March 2011, Major Robinson received an unsatisfactory work performance evaluation from Chief Sturm, his first negative evaluation since beginning his employment with ULLPD back in 1971. Also in March 2011, Major Robinson's duties as custodian of the evidence room were taken from him and given to Officer Abrams, a lower ranking officer. On March 15, 2011, Chief Sturm recommended to the ULL Vice President of Student Affairs, Dean Edward Pratt, that disciplinary action be taken against Major Robinson, citing insubordination in failing to follow direct orders relative to the audit and transfer process of the evidence room. Chief Sturm agreed to reduce his recommendation of a five-day suspension to a three-day suspension, given Major Robinson's past work history, after discussions with ULL's Human Resource Director, Charlene Hamilton.

         Major Robinson executed the requisite paperwork on May 9, 2011, certifying his intent to retire effective July 15, 2011. Subsequently, Chief Sturm's proposed disciplinary action was rescinded upon Major Robinson certifying his retirement plans.

         Major Robinson became the subject of an internal affairs investigation in May 2011 over alleged missing evidence. Chief Sturm instituted the internal affairs investigation, which was to be conducted by Lieutenant Michael Louviere, ULLPD's Investigative Lieutenant. Lieutenant Louviere's investigation substantiated misconduct for unsatisfactory performance on the part of Major Robinson. Chief Sturm drafted a letter to Major Robinson in June 2011 advising him of the internal investigation findings. The letter was forwarded to the Human Resources Department (HR); however, disciplinary action was withheld due to Major Robinson's retirement effective July 15, 2011.

         Major Robinson was given a new assignment by Chief Sturm to patrol the Primate Research Center (Primate Center) in New Iberia, Louisiana, on May 23, 2011. This new assignment as a patrolman was not in conformity with Major Robinson's classification as a Police Major A, although his salary remained unchanged.

         Major Robinson retired on July 15, 2011. By the time of his retirement, Major Robinson had been employed at ULL for forty years and was sixty-seven years old.

         In August 2012, Major Robinson filed the present suit for damages based upon age-based employment discrimination by the ULLPD under both federal and state law. Following a trial by jury, a verdict was rendered in favor of Major Robinson for $367,918.00. A judgment was signed by the district court in conformity with the jury verdict, and Major Robinson was awarded attorney fees and court costs. That verdict was appealed to the First Circuit Court of Appeal, which affirmed the jury verdict finding that Major Robinson had successfully established a prima facie case of age discrimination. Additionally, the appellate court found that the jury permissibly rejected ULL's proffered legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its actions and found that a rational fact-finder could conclude that the action was discriminatory. Robinson v. Bd. of Supervisors for Univ. of La. Sys., 15-1717 (La.App. 1 Cir. 11/4/16), 208 So.3d 511 (Chutz, J., dissents and assigns reasons). ULL then filed an application for certiorari with this Court, which was granted by order of February 3, 2017. Robinson v. Bd. of Supervisors for Univ. of La. Sys., 16-2145 (La. 2/3/17), ___ So.3d ___.

         DISCUSSION

         Standard of Review

         The trial court's findings of fact may not be reversed unless they are manifestly erroneous or clearly wrong. Stobart v. State of Louisiana, through Dep't Transp. & Dev., 617 So.2d 880, 882 (La.1993). The issue to be resolved by a reviewing court is not whether the jury was right or wrong, but whether the conclusion reached was a reasonable one. Id. When there is conflict in the testimony, a jury's reasonable evaluations of credibility and reasonable inferences of facts should not be disturbed, even though an appellate court may feel that its own evaluations and inferences are reasonable. Id. The reviewing court must remain mindful that if the "jury's findings are reasonable in light of the record reviewed in its entirety, the court of appeal may not reverse, even if convinced that had it been sitting as the trier of fact, it would have weighted the evidence differently." Id. at 882-83 (citing Housley v. Cerise, 579 So.2d 973 (La.1991)) (quoting Sistler v. Liberty Mut'l Ins. Co., 558 So.2d 1106, 1112 (La.1990)). Additionally, where there are two permissible views of the evidence, the jury's choice between them cannot be manifestly erroneous or clearly wrong. Id. (citing Canter v. Koehring Co., 283 So.2d 716 (La.1973)).

         This Court has repeatedly emphasized the deference due to the trier of fact, stating:

[A]n appellate court on review must be cautious not to re-weigh the evidence or to substitute its own factual findings just because it would have decided the case differently:
[w]hen findings are based on determinations regarding the credibility of witnesses, the manifest error-clearly wrong standard demands great deference to the trier of fact's findings; for only the factfinder can be aware of the variations in demeanor and tone of voice that bear so heavily on the listener's understanding and belief in what is said. Where documents or objective evidence so contradict the witness's story, or the story itself is so internally inconsistent or implausible on its face, that a reasonable fact finder would not credit the witness's story, the court of appeal may well find manifest error or clear wrongness even in a finding purportedly based upon a credibility determination. But where such factors are not present, and a factfinder's finding is based on its decision to credit the testimony of one of two or more witnesses, that finding can virtually never be manifestly erroneous or clearly wrong.

Rosell, 549 So.2d at 844-45 (citations omitted).

While we understand and appreciate the reality that many times we would have judged the case differently had we been the trier of fact, this is not our function as a reviewing court. Menard v. Lafayette Ins. Co., 09-1869, p. 21 (La.3/16/10), 31 So.3d 996, 1011.

Hayes Fund for First United Methodist Church of Welsh, LLC v. Kerr-McGee Rocky Mountain, LLC, 14-2592, pp. 9-10 (La. 12/8/15), 193 So.3d 1110, 1116.

         Age Discrimination

         Major Robinson's claims of age discrimination are based upon alleged violations of the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), 29 U.S.C. §§ 621–634, and Louisiana's Age Discrimination Employment Act (LADEA), La.R.S. 23:311–314, which make it unlawful for an employer to discharge any individual or otherwise discriminate against an individual with respect to compensation, or terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because of the individual's age. 29 U.S.C. § 623; La.R.S. 23:312(A)(1). Because the LADEA "is identical to the federal statute prohibiting age discrimination, Louisiana courts have traditionally looked to federal case law for guidance." LaBove v. Raftery, 00-1394, 00-1423, p. 9 (La. 11/28/01), 802 So.2d 566, 573 (footnote omitted).

         Under the burden-shifting framework established in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 93 S.Ct. 1817 (1973), in order to establish a prima facie case of employment discrimination based on age, a plaintiff must prove that: (1) he was discharged; (2) he was qualified for the position; (3) he was within the protected class at the time of discharge or demotion; and (4) he was either (i) replaced by someone outside the protected class, (ii) replaced by someone younger, or (iii) otherwise discharged because of his age. Eastin v. Entergy Corp., 09-0293, p. 34 (La.App. 5 Cir. 7/27/10), 42 So.3d 1163, 1185-86 (citing McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802, 93 S.Ct. at 1824). The establishment of a prima facie case raises an inference of unlawful discrimination. Id. at 1186 (citing Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 120 S.Ct. 2097 (2000)).

         If the plaintiff can establish a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the defendant to articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory purpose for the adverse employment action. Id. (citing Texas Dep't of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 252-53, 101 S.Ct. 1089, 1093 (1981)) (quoting McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802, 93 S.Ct. at 1824). The defendant must point to admissible evidence in the record, but the burden is one of production, not persuasion. Id. (citing Texas Dep't of Cmty. Affairs, 450 U.S. at 254, 101 S.Ct. at 1094-95).

         If the defendant satisfies its burden of production, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to show that any non-discriminatory reasons articulated by the employer are not true reasons, but only pretexts. Id. (citing Texas Dep't of Cmty. Affairs, 450 U.S. at 253, 101 S.Ct. at 1093); McDonnel Douglas, 411 U.S. at 804, 93 S.Ct. at 1825. This may be accomplished either directly, by showing that a discriminatory reason more than likely motivated the employer, or indirectly, by showing that the asserted reason is unworthy of credence. Eastin, 42 ...


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