Jury Awards $20M For Employment Discrimination By American Family

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: Feb 5, 2017

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Age DiscriminationA jury in Missouri awarded more than $20 million to Debbie Miller as compensation for age and gender discrimination and retaliation. Miller sued her former employer, American Family Insurance, after she was demoted from sales manager to sales agent at the age of 57.

The verdict is reportedly the largest discrimination award returned by a jury under the Missouri Human Rights Act. The jury awarded $450,000 as compensatory damages and $20 million in punitive damages.

Miller’s Age Discrimination Claim

Miller told the jury that her troubles started when she refused the company’s instruction to seek retirement letters from older sales agents. Miller contended that American Family wanted a younger sales force and asked her to violate the law by discriminating against older agents.

Miller offered evidence that she was replaced by a younger sales manager who pressured older agents to retire. When agents refused to retire, the sales manager set performance goals that were impossible to achieve.

Miller maintained that American Family’s discriminatory attitude toward older salespersons, combined with her replacement by a younger employee, established that she was the victim of age discrimination.

Missouri law prohibits discrimination against employees who have reached the age of 40 but have not yet reached the age of 70. Missouri law is similar to the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), although the ADEA does not set an age at which employees lose their protection against discrimination. Rather, with limited exceptions, the ADEA does not permit forced retirement at any age for reasons that are unrelated to job qualifications.

Miller’s Retaliation Claim

Miller contended that the older sales agents were performing well and meeting the company’s expectations. Miller was convinced that their age was the only factor motivating American Family to ask them for retirement letters. Since age is not a legitimate reason upon which to base that request, Miller declined to do so.

Like federal law, Missouri law prohibits employers from retaliating against an employee who refuses to engage in employment discrimination. Miller persuaded the jury that her demotion was based, at least in part, on her refusal to carry out the company’s orders to discriminate against older sales agents.

Miller’s Gender Discrimination Claim

Miller told the jury that her problems at work were exacerbated when she was given a new supervisor who created an intimidating, bullying, and hostile work environment. Evidence suggested that American Family knew from a Human Relations investigation that the supervisor was bullying Miller but took no action to address the problem.

Other female employees testified that the Missouri sales operation pressured them to maintain a young and slim appearance. Male employees were not subject to the same expectations. That differential treatment was offered as evidence of gender discrimination.

Pretext and Proof

Employers rarely say “I am demoting you because of your gender” or “I am demoting you because you refused to violate the law.” Instead, they invent an excuse for their adverse actions.

Recognizing that direct evidence of discrimination is rarely available, courts allow employees to prove discrimination with evidence that the reason an employer gave for an adverse employment action was false. Employment law refers to an excuse for an adverse action as a pretext. If a jury believes that the reason given for a demotion or other adverse action was pretextual, the jury may infer that discrimination was the true motivation.

Miller’s manager told her that she was being demoted for poor performance. When she asked how she could improve her performance, her manager could not give her any suggestions. Miller wisely recorded that conversation, making it impossible for the manager to claim that he told Miller what she needed to do to meet American Family’s expectations.

Miller was also told that she failed to inspire her agents. However, the agents who worked under Miller’s supervision all praised her work. American Family could not explain how it evaluated Miller’s ability to inspire her agents without discussing her work with the agents she supervised.

Miller testified that she was placed on a Performance Improvement Plan that set goals she had no hope of achieving. Miller testified that her supervisor said “This will not end well for you” when she was given the Performance Improvement Plan, suggesting that her failure had been prejudged.

Miller showed the jury that she had received awards for her sales performance. She also presented evidence that her sales results were similar to or better than the results of male employees in similar positions. All of that evidence satisfied the jury that American Family’s stated reason for demoting Miller was a pretext designed to mask a discriminatory motive.

American Family’s Response

American Family announced that it disagreed with the verdict, which it deemed “contrary to the facts and the law.” The company’s media relations director said that American Family is considering its options and might appeal.

At the very least, American Family will probably ask for, and receive, a reduction of the punitive damages award. Supreme Court precedent suggests that punitive damages violate the Constitution when they substantially exceed actual damages. Punitive damages that exceed actual damages by more than a factor of ten are often regarded as unconstitutional.

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