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Dindinger v. Allsteel, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

April 3, 2017

Erin Dindinger; Lisa Loring; Elizabeth Freund Plaintiffs - Appellees
v.
Allsteel, Inc. Defendant-Appellant The Hon Company; Scott Mills Defendants Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Amicus on Behalf of Appellee(s)

          Submitted: December 13, 2016.

         Appeal from United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa - Davenport.

          Before LOKEN, MURPHY, and KELLY, Circuit Judges.

          KELLY, Circuit Judge.

         After a five-day trial, a jury found that Allsteel, Inc. (Allsteel) was liable to the plaintiffs Erin Dindinger, Lisa Loring, and Elizabeth Freund for sex-based wage discrimination under the Equal Pay Act, Iowa Civil Rights Act, and Title VII. Allsteel appeals the district court's denial of its motion for a new trial, as well as its grant of the plaintiffs' motions for attorney's fees and costs. We remand the issue of costs to the district court to determine whether it is the prevailing practice in Iowa to bill clients separately for Westlaw research, and affirm in all other respects.

         I. Background

         Dindinger, Loring, and Freund worked at Allsteel, a furniture manufacturer. They brought suit against Allsteel on October 10, 2011, alleging that it paid them less than it paid men performing equal work. All three women brought claims of sex-based wage discrimination under the Equal Pay Act, 29 U.S.C. § 206(d); Dindinger and Loring also brought claims of sex-based wage discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Act, Iowa Code § 216.6A, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e; and Loring additionally brought a claim of sex-based discrimination for failure to promote under Title VII.[1] With respect to the Equal Pay Act claims, the earliest possible date for which the plaintiffs could recover damages was either October 11, 2008 (if the violations were proven to be willful) or October 11, 2009 (if the violations were not proven to be willful); with respect to the Iowa Civil Rights Act claims, the earliest date was July 1, 2009; and with respect to Title VII claims the earliest date was October 12, 2009.

         The plaintiffs presented evidence that Dindinger, who was a Safety and Environmental Manager at Allsteel's Panel Plant between 2000 and May 20, 2011, was paid less than two male Safety and Environmental Managers who performed work equal to hers. Allsteel, on the other hand, presented evidence that her work was not equal to that of her male comparators. Allsteel also sought to establish that it paid Dindinger less than her male comparators based on factors other than sex-an affirmative defense to the Equal Pay Act and Iowa Civil Rights Act claims. Specifically, Allsteel presented evidence that Dindinger was paid less based on factors including prior education, outside experience, and seniority.

         The plaintiffs presented evidence that Loring, a Safety and Environmental Manager in Allsteel's Component Plant between March 2008 and November 1, 2013, was paid less than two male Safety and Environmental Managers who performed work equal to hers, and that Allsteel denied her a promotion based on sex. Allsteel countered with evidence that she did not perform equal work to her male comparators; that she was paid less based on factors including prior education, outside experience, and seniority; and that she was denied a promotion based on poor job performance.

         Finally, the plaintiffs presented evidence that Freund, a Member and Community Relations (MCR) Plant Manager in Allsteel's Distribution Center between April 2008 and December 3, 2009, was paid less than a male MCR Plant Manager whose work was equal to hers. But Allsteel introduced evidence that her work was not equal to that of her male comparator, and that even if it was, she was paid less based on factors including outside experience.

         Allsteel additionally sought to establish that it paid the plaintiffs less than their male comparators because of economic conditions. It introduced evidence that it experienced negative effects as a result of the economic recession that began in 2008, and that, to save costs, it laid off several employees, restructured job responsibilities, and froze merit-based pay raises. Allsteel also presented evidence that even if it did violate the Iowa Civil Rights Act or Equal Pay Act, the violations were not willful-an issue relevant to damages for the Iowa Civil Rights Act claims and to the limitations period for the Equal Pay Act claims. It submitted evidence that the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), a Department of Labor office, had conducted an audit of Allsteel to ensure Allsteel complied with certain requirements for federal contractors, including requirements related to compensating men and women equally. The district court excluded the audit results, but Allsteel was permitted to present other evidence regarding the audit, including evidence about the audit process, the types of data collected and evaluated in the audit, and the conclusions Allsteel personnel reached based on the audit data.

         The plaintiffs countered with evidence intended to demonstrate that Allsteel's purported reasons for paying the plaintiffs less than their male comparators and for not promoting Loring were pretextual, and to establish that the alleged Equal Pay Act and Iowa Civil Rights Act violations were willful. Specifically, the plaintiffs submitted evidence that other female Allsteel employees were paid less than male employees despite their comparative seniority, experience, or education; that an email had accidentally been sent to certain Allsteel employees showing that some female employees were paid less than male employees, prompting one female Allsteel employee to file an internal complaint and lawsuit alleging wage discrimination; and that Loring had positive performance reviews until she filed the present lawsuit, at which point she began to receive negative reviews.

         At the close of trial, the district court instructed the jury that Allsteel could establish an affirmative defense to the Equal Pay Act and Iowa Civil Rights Act claims if it proved that some factor other than sex justified the pay differentials. However, the court instructed the jury that Allsteel could not rely on economic conditions such as layoffs, restructuring, or pay raise freezes to establish the affirmative defense.

         The jury found in favor of the plaintiffs on all claims except for Loring's failure-to-promote claim. It also found that Allsteel's violations of the Equal Pay Act and Iowa Civil Rights Act were willful. The jury awarded each plaintiff back pay, and awarded Dindinger and Loring damages for past emotional distress and punitive damages for their Title VII claims. After calculating liquidated damages and eliminating duplicative awards, the district court entered judgment for Dindinger in the amount of $61, 000, for Loring in the amount of $83, 000, and for Freund in the amount of $60, 000. Allsteel filed a motion for new trial, arguing that the district court instructed the jury incorrectly on its affirmative defenses and made certain erroneous evidentiary rulings. The plaintiffs, meanwhile, moved for attorney's fees and costs. The district court denied the motion for new trial, and granted the motion for attorney's fees and costs. This appeal followed.

         II. Discussion

         A. Motion for New Trial

         Allsteel contends it is entitled to a new trial on the grounds that the district court abused its discretion by: (1) instructing the jury Allsteel could not rely on economic conditions as a factor other than sex justifying the wage differentials; (2) allowing the plaintiffs to present certain "me-too" evidence about other female employees who were paid less than male employees; (3) excluding the results of the OFCCP audit; and (4) allowing testimony indicating that Allsteel retaliated against Loring for filing the present lawsuit. "We review the denial of a motion for a new trial for a 'clear' abuse of discretion, with the key question being whether a new trial is necessary to prevent a miscarriage of justice." Hallmark Cards, Inc. v. Murley, 703 F.3d 456, 462 (8th Cir. 2013) (quoting Harrison v. Purdy Bros. Trucking Co., 312 F.3d 346, 351 (8th Cir. 2002)).

         1. Jury instruction

         First, Allsteel argues that it is entitled to a new trial because the district court incorrectly instructed the jury that Allsteel could not rely on economic conditions to establish its affirmative defense that a factor other than sex justified the pay discrepancies between the plaintiffs and their male comparators. "We review the jury instructions given by a district court for an abuse of discretion." Brown v. Sandals Resorts Int'l, 284 F.3d 949, 953 (8th Cir. 2002). "Our review is limited to whether the jury instructions, taken as a whole, 'fairly and adequately represent the evidence and applicable law in light of the issues presented to the jury in a particular case.'" Id. (quoting Ford v. GACS, Inc., 265 F.3d 670, 679 (8th Cir. 2001)). And "even where a jury instruction is erroneously given to the jury, reversal is warranted only where the error affects the substantial rights of the parties." Id.

         To establish a claim of sex-based wage discrimination under the Equal Pay Act or Iowa Civil Rights Act, [2] "a plaintiff must show by a preponderance of the evidence that (1) she was paid less than a male employed in the same establishment, (2) for equal work on jobs requiring equal skill, effort, and responsibility, (3) which were performed under similar working conditions." Hunt v. Neb. Pub. Power Dist., 282 F.3d 1021, 1029 (8th Cir. 2002). But even if a plaintiff proves all three elements, an employer may establish an affirmative defense by demonstrating that "different payment to employees of opposite sexes 'is made pursuant to (i) a seniority system; (ii) a merit system; (iii) a system which measures earnings by quantity or quality of production; or (iv) a differential based on any other factor other than sex.'" Corning Glass Works v. Brennan, 417 U.S. 188, 196 (1974) (quoting 29 U.S.C. § 206(d)(1)).

         One way Allsteel endeavored to prove an affirmative defense was by seeking to establish that economic conditions were a "factor other than sex" justifying the pay differentials. It offered testimony that it began to feel the effects of the economic recession in October 2008. To save costs, it implemented several rounds of layoffs between October or November 2008 and June 2009, restructured job ...


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