Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal recently reversed a hefty jury verdict in favor of the employee and directed the trial court to enter final judgment in favor of Florida International University (“FIU “). See St. Louis v. FIU, Third District Court of Appeal, No. 3D08-2316, March 30, 2011. The case was a big win for employers, particularly those involved in litigation in state court in Miami-Dade County, because the appeals court found that the case should have never gone to the jury.
In 2004, FIU eliminated a department that the employee, Sean St. Louis, a Black male, managed. FIU created a new department and invited employees from the eliminated department to apply for the new positions. Mr. St. Louis interviewed for a newly-created managerial position. He was not selected for the position. In fact, no one was selected and the position remained vacant for 19 months. Eventually, FIU promoted a non-Black employee to the managerial position.
Mr. St. Louis said that the elimination of his department was motivated by his race. He also said that he did not get the new position in retaliation for him expressing his feelings about being discriminated against. At trial, there was no evidence of any racial remarks being made about Mr. St. Louis. Rather, Mr. St. Louis focused on the non-Black employee being hired for the new position. The jury awarded Mr. St. Louis $72,241 in lost wages and benefits, and $2.5 million in damages for pain and suffering.
FIU appealed the jury verdict because Mr. St. Louis had failed to prove that he was discriminated or retaliated against. A unanimous appellate court agreed. The court said that “[e]vidence of a person outside the employee’s protected class being hired for the same position approximately nineteen months after Plaintiff applied for the position and approximately eighteen months after Plaintiff resigned from FIU does not, without more, create an inference of discriminatory intent.” The court also said that the Mr. St. Louis did not show that any of the decision-makers knew of his past complaint of discrimination when considering his application for the new position.
This opinion is one of the few decisions from our Florida state appellate courts on the issues of discrimination and retaliation. Given the rising tide of employment claims filed in our state courts, we are hopeful this opinion will help assist trial courts (and Florida employers) when analyzing whether claims are supported by adequate evidence.