The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Beverage Distributors Company, LLC on Monday, March 16, 2015.
Michael Sungaila, who is legally blind, worked for Beverage Distributors until his position was eliminated, at which time he obtained a higher paying job in the company’s warehouse that required him to pass a physical. He passed the physical, but the doctor said Mr. Sungaila would require accommodations for his impaired vision. Beverage Distributors declined to make the accommodations, concluding instead that Mr. Sungaila’s condition created a significant risk of harm to himself or others, and rescinded its job offer. Mr. Sungaila subsequently received a lower-paying position with a different company. The EEOC brought suit on his behalf under the ADA.
At trial, Beverage Distributors asserted two defenses: (1) Mr. Sungaila’s limited vision created a direct threat of harm to himself or others and no reasonable accommodations could mitigate the risk, and (2) should he prevail, Mr. Sungaila’s award should be reduced because of his failure to mitigate damages. The jury found that Beverage Distributors was liable for discrimination and Mr. Sungaila was not a direct threat, but also found he had failed to mitigate his damages. The jury reduced his back-pay award for failure to mitigate. The EEOC filed two post-trial motions, first invoking F.R.C.P. 50(a) and arguing Beverage Distributors had not proved failure to mitigate as a matter of law, and also seeking a tax-penalty offset for the lump sum award. The district court granted both motions. Beverage Distributors appealed.
The Tenth Circuit first addressed Beverage Distributors’ claim that the jury was erroneously instructed on direct threat and this constituted reversible error. The Tenth Circuit evaluated the instruction and found it inaccurately conveyed the direct threat standard. The instruction stated that Beverage Distributors must prove that Mr. Sungaila’s employment posed a direct risk of harm, while the actual standard is simply that Beverage Distributors reasonably believed there was a direct risk. Because the jury instruction conveyed the wrong standard for the direct threat defense, and because the jury likely relied on this instruction in determining liability, the Tenth Circuit reversed.
Next, Beverage Distributors argued the district court improperly granted the EEOC’s Rule 50(a) motion, but the Tenth Circuit declined to reach the issue, finding that the evidence for the fact-intensive issue might be different on remand.
Finally, the Tenth Circuit found that the tax penalty offset was properly awarded. If the issue arises again on remand, it is properly before the court to decide whether to award a tax penalty offset, and there is no impropriety in such an award.
The Tenth Circuit reversed and remanded on the direct threat instruction and found the tax penalty offset was proper.