March 23, 2019

Tenth Circuit: County Violated Title VII by Terminating Employee After He Helped Colleague Pursue Sexual Harassment Claim Against Employer

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Barrett v. Salt Lake County on Friday, June 13, 2014.

Michael Barrett was employed by Salt Lake County for 14 years, where he received promotions and favorable reviews until he helped a colleague pursue a sexual harassment claim against her boss. After he assisted his colleague, he was demoted by the county. He sued, alleging the county violated Title VII by retaliating against him, and the jury found for Mr. Barrett.

The county appealed, asserting that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The Tenth Circuit disagreed, noting that the case on which the county relied play no role in post-trial motions. The county also alleged that the jury instructions provided the wrong procedural framework for determining Title VII cases. However, the jury received instruction on the proper procedural framework and decided the case accordingly, so the county’s argument failed. The county also objected to another jury instruction, but this objection was not properly preserved at trial.

The county also disagreed with the district court’s award, not restoring Barrett to his former position since the position had been filled but instead restoring him to his prior level of pay. The county claimed that the result afforded Barrett a “windfall” for performing less work for more pay. However, the Tenth Circuit was unsympathetic to this argument, noting that the district court retains wide discretion in determining equitable relief.

The final argument raised by the county was that the district court’s award of attorney fees to Barrett for fees incurred during the internal grievance process was in error because it was an optional process, not a mandatory exhaustion of administrative remedies. On that limited point, the Tenth Circuit agreed. The Tenth Circuit remanded for redetermination of attorney fees and affirmed on all other points.

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