Hennepin County District Court File No. 9817380
Considered and decided by Randall, Presiding Judge, Shumaker, Judge, and
1. With exceptions that do not apply, a layperson may not testify in the form of opinions or inferences, and such testimony is inadmissible under Minn. R. Evid. 701. The erroneous admission of such evidence along with other inadmissible evidence may constitute reversible prejudicial error in a jury trial.
2. A statement from an employee that another employee agrees with a characterization of a workplace as a "boys' club" atmosphere is inadmissible opinion evidence. The erroneous admission of such evidence along with other inadmissible evidence may constitute reversible prejudicial error in a jury trial.
3. Evidence that might arguably be relevant to a punitive-damages claim but that is excludable under Minn. R. Evid. 403 and 404(b) is not admissible during a plaintiff's case-in-chief in a jury trial.
4. Unproven allegations of "bad acts" that predate a plaintiff's employment are irrelevant and excludable under Minn. R. Evid. 403, 404, and 408, and erroneous admission of such evidence may constitute reversible prejudicial error in a jury trial.
5. Testimony that constitutes only a lexical definition of "stereotyping," coupled with an opinion on an issue so abundant in our society as to be considered of common knowledge, does not qualify for admission as expert testimony, and it is an abuse of discretion to allow its admission in a jury trial.
6. On review of a combined bench and jury trial where inadmissible evidence resulted in reversible prejudicial error as to the jury verdict, the bench trial decision may still be affirmed where it is clear from the record that the judge did not rely on the inadmissible evidence, but rather on evidence properly received and sufficient to support the claim.
7. When front pay is an element of compensatory damages under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, such damages may be subject to a multiplier where they are awarded for lost compensation because reinstatement is not an available remedy and where the calculation of front pay is based upon a reasonable period of time.
8. Under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, requiring an employer to conduct annual performance evaluations tailored to further the purposes and intent of the Act by providing means for identifying, addressing, and educating a company on the matter of gender discrimination is a permissible and appropriate injunctive remedy.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gordon W. Shumaker, Judge
Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded
The district court simultaneously conducted a bench trial on claims of gender discrimination brought under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) and a jury trial on claims brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). Both the district court and the jury concluded that appellant Miller Meester Advertising, Inc. (MMA) had engaged in unlawful gender discrimination when it terminated respondent Patricia Ludowese Ray's employment and that Ray was entitled to damages under both acts.
On appeal, MMA alleges multiple errors in the district court's evidentiary rulings, jury instructions, calculation of damages, award of injunctive relief, and award of attorney fees.
Patricia Ludowese Ray worked as an at-will creative director for MMA. When MMA terminated her employment, Ray sued MMA and its owner, Robert V. Miller (Miller), for unlawful gender discrimination under both the state MHRA and Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act.
MMA hired Ray in June 1996, to serve as one of four group creative directors. She was the first woman in MMA's 25-year history to hold a position in MMA's creative department above an associate-director level. She was given the same title and responsibilities as the other three creative directors.
After Ray started her job, MMA reorganized its creative department and appointed one overall creative director. This position was filled by a male, who was given 18 months to prove himself. When he failed to do so, he was not terminated but was given the position of senior manager at the same salary.
On June 9, 1998, MMA assigned Ray the position of sole creative director but did not formally announce her promotion, as it had done with her male predecessor.
During Ray's tenure, Cathy Marchio, a vice-president and director of human resources for MMA, commended her for her abilities. Ray's immediate supervisor, Robert Ruhland, never expressed dissatisfaction with Ray's management of the creative group, and there were no negative appraisals in her personnel file.
But Miller did say to Ray that her efforts to hire an art director were unsatisfactory because Ray did not know how to interview. Miller said he would teach her. Also on one occasion an employee under Ray's management complained about work assignments and Ray's decision not to move her workstation. Ray met with the employee and Marchio, and Marchio praised Ray for her handling of the situation.
On August 11, 1998, Miller told Marchio to fire Ray immediately. She did so. When Ray asked Marchio what she had done wrong, Marchio said she had done nothing wrong and it was a "Bob decision." In a termination letter, Marchio stated that the reason for Ray's termination was her "management style which created morale problems for employees," but Marchio was unable to identify specific problems. After Ray's termination, Miller hired a male to take her place.
The trial evidence was in sharp contrast. Robert Miller portrayed Ray's termination as the product of a proper business decision applied to an at-will employee. He testified about the low morale in the creative department and indicated that Ray had failed to achieve a consensus among the employees in that department. He also cited deteriorating business conditions and a pattern of employee complaints about Ray as factors in his decision to fire her. He denied that his decision was motivated by gender discrimination.
To prove her allegations, Ray introduced evidence of her differential treatment as a woman; discriminatory comments by certain employees; the workplace "atmosphere"; complaints of sexual harassment and retaliation that occurred prior to the commencement of her employment; and an expert opinion on gender stereotyping. The district court overruled MMA's objections as to much of this evidence on the bases of hearsay, relevancy, rule 403, and foundation. These rulings, as well as certain jury instructions and damages calculations, are the principal bases of MMA's appeal.
1. Did the district court abuse its discretion by admitting evidence that was improper lay-opinion testimony, irrelevant, unduly prejudicial, or improper expert opinion?
2. Did the admission of inadmissible evidence result in prejudicial error in the Title VII jury trial?
3. Did the admission of inadmissible evidence result in prejudicial error in the MHRA bench trial?
4. Did the district court err in its order for damages when it applied the MHRA multiplier to the front-pay damages; allowed allocation of damages between the MHRA and Title VII claims, awarded injunctive relief and punitive damages; and, was the district court's order awarding damages and attorney fees excessive?
The district court has discretion to admit or exclude evidence, and its rulings will not be reversed unless they constitute an abuse of discretion or are based on an erroneous view of the law. TMG Life Ins. Co. v. County of Goodhue, 540 N.W.2d 848, 851 (Minn. 1995). Even if an evidentiary ruling is erroneous, it will not be reversed unless it resulted in prejudice. Kroning v. State Farm Auto. Ins. Co., 567 N.W.2d 42, 46 (Minn. 1997). An evidentiary error is prejudicial if it might reasonably be said to have changed the result of the trial. Jenson v. Touche Ross & Co., 335 N.W.2d 720, 725 (Minn. 1983); see State v. Bolte, 530 N.W.2d 191, 198 (Minn. 1995) (providing that an error in admitting evidence is prejudicial "if there is a reasonable possibility that the verdict might have been more favorable to the defendant if the evidence had not been admitted") (quotation omitted).
The first category of testimony we will consider consists of evidence of discriminatory statements and characterizations of the workplace atmosphere during Ray's tenure.
Ray's husband testified that on the day before Ray's termination MMA employee Mike Butler told him that the "boys" were giving Ray a hard time and were out to get her. The Minnesota Rules of Evidence provide that a lay witness may testify only to matters about which the witness has firsthand knowledge. Minn. R. Evid. 602. With some exceptions that do not apply here, a lay witness may not testify in the form of opinions or inferences. Minn. R. Evid. 701. Butler's statements did not relate perceived facts but rather disclosed his opinions or inferences as to the "boys'" conduct. This evidence was inadmissible.
Employee Alexia Bonnici testified that there was a "boys' club" atmosphere in MMA's creative department and that human resources director Kathy Marchio agreed with her. Bonnici's characterization of the atmosphere in the creative department was an inadmissible opinion, and her testimony that Marchio agreed was an improper opinion and inadmissible hearsay. Hearsay is an out-of-court statement offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted. Minn. R. Evid. 801(c). Subject to exceptions, none applying here, hearsay is not admissible in evidence. Minn. R. Evid. 802. Bonnici's opinion that Marchio agreed that there was a "boys' club" atmosphere at MMA was offered to prove that there was in fact such an atmosphere. This was inadmissible hearsay.
Ray testified that, on the evening of her termination, she spoke with MMA employee Nancy Johnson, who told her that employee Paul Durham must have influenced Miller's termination decision because Durham has an intense dislike for women. Johnson's opinion was inadmissible, was speculative, and was allowed into evidence through the vehicle of inadmissible hearsay.
Johnson also told Ray's husband that certain employees wanted a particular male to be the creative director because they preferred someone who would sit around, put his feet up on the desk, and drink coffee with the others, and that Ray was all ...