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Saying that jury instructions in a race discrimination case against the city of Wilmington, Del., failed to provide the panel with “adequate guidance,” a federal judge overturned a $708,000 jury award and ordered a new trial. In an eight-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Joseph Farnan recounted some of the suspect jury instructions in the trial pitting plaintiffs Paula and Nick Manolakos against Wilmington Mayor James Sills, the city of Wilmington and former personnel director Wayne Crosse. Farnan found fault with the guidance given to the jury on the burden of proof, zeroing in on instructions related to Manolakos’ efforts to prove the city had let her go in 1995 because she is white. He wrote, “The court committed errors of law through the instructions given to the jury.” Specifically, Farnan, also the trial judge, instructed the jury that plaintiffs must prove a prima facie case of discrimination; then the burden of proof shifts to defendants, who must establish a non-discriminatory reason for its actions; and finally the plaintiffs reassume the burden of proof because they must prove the defense’s explanation is merely a pretext to hide a discriminatory motive. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, however, has ruled that if the plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, only the burden of production shifts to the defendants to articulate a non-discriminatory reason for their actions. The burden of production is satisfied when the evidence, if assumed to be true, would permit the conclusion that there was a nondiscriminatory reason. This is a much lower standard than the burden of proof which requires that defendants must prove the tendered reason actually caused their behavior. Farnan ordered a new trial on all issues, including Nick Manolakos’ claim of loss of consortium. The decision not only wipes out the $708,000 award made during the March 1999 trial, but also interest that has been estimated at about 10 percent a year. Manolakos, now 50, filed her complaint in 1996, the year after she lost her job at the city office of information systems. Although city officials denied it, Manolakos proved that Sills and Crosse had targeted her personally for termination after she had tried to discipline a minority employee. That worker supposedly had stolen from the city and lied on a job application. Sills maintained during the trial that “we didn’t make a decision to take Paula Manolakos out of the budget; we made a decision to take her position out of the budget.” The trial featured an ill-fated statement made by Sills during a May 1995 city “leadership” meeting. Sills told city officials and others that he would not lay off any more minority workers, adding that white workers would have to go instead. At the time, Wilmington was having trouble balancing its bottom line. Sills admitted making the statement in moment of exasperation, but denied he ever targeted white workers for dismissal. Manolakos lost her job as the fiscal year of 1996 started, then bumped another worker within the city public safety department, taking that worker’s job. Manolakos persuaded the jury Crosse then intervened, telling her boss not to train her in the new job, thus ensuring she would fail. The jury assessed both Sills and Crosse $250,000 in punitive damages, for which the city promised to indemnify them. Manolakos’ husband got $75,000 for loss of consortium. Much of the rest of the award compensated her for medical expenses. In his reversal, Farnan stressed the public interest in such a case, saying any outcome should be as free from error as possible. The case is Paula and Nick Manolakos v. James H. Sills, et al., 96-582.

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