verdicts-and-settlements-article

Briggs v. Temple University

$850,000 Verdict

Date of Verdict: July 19.

Court and Case No.: U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, 2:16-cv-00248-RK.

Judge: Robert F. Kelly.

Type of Action: Civil rights, retaliation, age discrimination, workplace harassment, gender discrimination, hostile work environment.

Injuries: Emotional distress.

Plaintiffs Counsel: Laura C. Mattiacci and Rahul Munshi of Console Mattiacci Law.

Defense Counsel: Richard R. Harris and Rachel Fendell Satinsky of Littler Mendelson.

Comment:

On April 1, 2014, plaintiff Ruth Briggs, 59, an executive assistant, was terminated from her job at Temple University.

Briggs, who had worked for the university since 2001, believed her termination was motivated by discrimination based on age and gender, and by retaliation.

According to Briggs, on Nov. 9, 2011, the day before her 57th birthday, her supervisor, who was of Chinese descent, said words to the effect of, “In China, they put women out to pasture at your age.” Briggs replied, “With all due respect, we are not in China, we are in America.”

Following her reply, Briggs received a written disciplinary action. She claimed that for the next two-and-a-half years she was subjected to a hostile work environment. Moreover, she was retaliated against after repeatedly complaining about this environment and reaching out to human resources for help.

According to Briggs, her supervisor and others overly scrutinized her work, and she received various disciplinary actions. She received a written disciplinary action for arriving late on one occasion, which she had rarely done. On another occasion, she received a three-day suspension for failing to book a flight for a prospective new hire.

In the years leading up to her termination, Briggs claimed, she had repeatedly emailed human resources, supervisors and in-house counsel. However, she received evasions, in which the individual would pass her to another university official. Five weeks after making it known that she would file a complaint with The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, she was fired.

Briggs sued Temple University, alleging age and gender discrimination, retaliation and harassment, in violation of the Age Discrimination and Employment Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights of 1964 Act and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.

Briggs testified about her supervisor’s initial comment, and how her rebuttal set off a cascade of harassment and hostile work environment incidents that continued during the years leading up to her termination. Her counsel presented emails that Briggs had sent to various university officials detailing the instances of her treatment, and the replies to her emails, which had never addressed her concerns. Counsel argued that Briggs had been a longtime employee who was successful in her position, and prior to working with the supervisor she had never received disciplinary actions or been put on performance-improvement plans.

The university maintained that Briggs had been terminated solely for performance issues, and not because of discrimination or retaliation. Counsel cited the instances in which Briggs had overslept and failed to schedule a flight. Briggs’ supervisor denied that he had made an age-related comment to Briggs. He testified that Briggs had become deficient in her work and caused him to lose confidence in her ability to perform her job, which eventually resulted in her termination.

In August 2016, Briggs found a job as a home health aide, earning slightly above minimum wage. She said that, following her termination, she had applied to more than 100 jobs. She sought to recover about $251,000 in back pay. The court determined that it would hear Briggs’ claim for front pay at a post-trial hearing.

Briggs testified about the emotional distress she experienced in the years following her termination. She said she faced financial hardships and was forced to move into low-income, subsidized housing and rely on food stamps. Her relationships with family and friends became strained, and she had to use her retirement fund. She sought damages for pain and suffering.

The university’s counsel did not dispute Briggs’ damages.

The jury found that Temple University discriminated against Briggs based on her age in terminating her employment, that it retaliated against her for making age-based complaints, that she had been subjected to age-based harassment and that she had been subjected to harassment based on her complaints of gender discrimination.

Jurors also determined that Briggs had not been discriminated against based on her gender with regard to the termination decision, that she had not been retaliated against based on her gender with regard to the termination decision and that she had not been subjected to gender-based harassment.

The jury further found that Temple University acted with willful indifference.

Briggs was awarded $850,000. The award comprised $350,000 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in back pay plus liquidated damages. Because the university was found to have acted with willful indifference, Briggs’ $250,000 award for back pay was automatically doubled, to $500,000.

—This report first appeared in VerdictSearch, an ALM publication.