Target can have job, not $4.4 million

Here’s yet another case where a jury “got it” but the court did not.  Not only did the appeals court minimize the trauma of workplace abuse in its ruling but it did not hold the employer accountable for failing to halt workplace abuse. PGB

Court Overturns Jury Award

James McKelvey was an Army soldier in 2004 when he lost his right hand trying to defuse a roadside bomb in Iraq.

After recovering at a base in Germany and at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, McKelvey moved back to Michigan, and in February 2006 accepted a civilian job with the army as an operations specialist first at Selfridge Air National Guard Base and eventually at the Detroit Arsenal.

There he became a target of verbal abuse regarding his injury by his supervisor and co-workers, and his supervisor either failed to give him work to do or gave him demeaning work assignments.

McKelvey quit on February 16, 2007 to take a non-military job in the local sheriff’s department, saying he had only stayed that long at the armory because he had a wife and child to support. He then filed a lawsuit alleging he was essentially fired – or constructively discharged – because of a hostile work environment stemming from discrimination because of his disability.

A Michigan federal court jury ruled for McKelvey on both claims but it awarded no damages on the hostile-work-environment claim.  Instead, the jury awarded McKelvey $4,388,302 in front pay on the constructive-discharge claim. Front pay is money awarded for lost compensation during the period between judgment and reinstatement, or if reinstatement is not feasible, instead of reinstatement.

The trial court judge immediately vacated the jury’s award, finding that it was not supported by law.

This week, an appellate court found that McKelvey was constructively discharged from his job at the armory but agreed with the trial court that the proper remedy is reinstatement and not the $4.4 million jury award. (See McKelvey v. Secretary of United States Army, No. 10-1172 (Dec. 14, 2011).

The appeals court said “reasonable minds” could find that McKelvey was constructively discharged from his job at the armory because “ … the crux of this claim turns on the harassment McKelvey endured. McKelvey presented evidence that (a supervisor and coworker) repeatedly called him, among other derogatory things, “all fucked up,” “a piece of shit,” “worthless,” and “a fucking cripple.” … Repeated over the course of nine months, this constant stream of invective could sustain a finding of constructive discharge.”

And yet, the appeals court said, the proper remedy in McKelvey’s case is reinstatement. The court said the $4.4 million award of front pay was too “speculative” for a relatively young man of 38 years old and any trauma McKelvey might experience by returning to the job would be mitigated by the fact that he would have different supervisors and four of his six co-workers would be new, with no connection to the prior harassment.

The  Army had argued that McKelvey could not claim constructive discharge because conditions had improved two months before he quit. According to the appeals court,“This gap is too short for us to say as a matter of law that McKelvey’s workplace was no longer intolerable, and is shorter than the gaps in cases where an employee’s delay in leaving precluded a finding of constructive discharge.”  However, the court said it might agree that McKelvey had waited to long to quit if he had stayed much longer.

The appeals court said McKelvey is entitled to back pay from the time he was constructively discharged until the Army offered him reinstatement  following the trial in his case.