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Ellis v. Ringgold School District

August 19, 1987


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, D.C. Civil No. 83-2617.

Gibbons, Chief Judge, and Weis, Circuit Judge, and Kelly,*fn* District Judge.

Author: Weis


WEIS, Circuit Judge.

After finding that defendant had discriminated against plaintiff when it declined to hire her as a permanent teacher, the district court granted partial back pay but failed to address her request for reinstatement. We will remand for a ruling on that issue. Furthermore, we observe that accepting employment in another field may be consistent with a duty to mitigate damages and not necessarily evidence of abandonment of one's profession.

Responding to special interrogatories, a jury found that defendant school district had been guilty of racial discrimination when it did not hire plaintiff as a permanent teacher in 1974. In a bench trial she was awarded $24,596.68 in lost earnings and $7,734.95 in attorney's fees.

In 1974 after receiving a provisional teaching certificate, plaintiff applied for a full-time teaching position with the Ringgold School District near her home in Donora, Pennsylvania. She was accepted as a "full-time substitute" and taught in the elementary school for the 1974-75 and 1975-76 terms. In August 1976, after a third denial of full-time status, plaintiff filed complaints with the EEOC and the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission. The school district thereafter gave her only fifteen days of work as part-time substitute.

In 1978 plaintiff found employment at a munitions plant and continued there until it closed in 1980. Her salary exceeded what she would have earned as a full-time teacher. In 1981 she taught at a private academy in Pittsburgh, but left after one semester because the position required that she commute fifty miles daily. Thereafter, until trial, plaintiff worked as a janitress and received compensation for acting as a foster parent. She also received twelve credits for post-graduate work she completed.

The court found that the difference between her actual earnings and what she would have received as a full-time teacher at Ringgold between 1974 and 1978 amounted to $24,596.68. Defendant does not dispute that calculation. Plaintiff made no claim for back pay during the period she worked at the munitions factory. No recovery was allowed for lost earnings after 1980.

At the conclusion of the evidence on damages, the trial judge commented, "Everyone will recognize that the testimony of the plaintiff on her obligation to mitigate has been very weak, and the testimony of the plaintiff on what amount she earned from other sources is weak and not very credible." In his memorandum opinion the judge wrote: "Plaintiff's voluntary relinquishment of a teaching position and her failure to explore several obvious avenues to employment preclude recovery for back pay following her lay off in 1980." The opinion did not discuss the plaintiff's request for reinstatement, and the final judgment did not include any reference to the subject.

Plaintiff did not file any request for modification of the judgment in the district court but instead appealed to this court. On appeal she contends that the district court erred in denying back pay through the date of the trial and in failing to direct reinstatement.

Once the jury found discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, plaintiff became entitled to an appropriate remedy under 42 U.S.C. ยง 2000e-5(g). The statute provides that the court may "order such affirmative action as may be appropriate, which may include, but is not limited to, reinstatement . . . with or without back pay . . ., or any other equitable relief as the court deems appropriate." However, a plaintiff is required to mitigate damages: "Interim earnings or amounts earnable with reasonable diligence by the person or persons discriminated against shall operate to reduce the back pay otherwise allowable."

In Waddell v. Small Tube Products, Inc., 799 F.2d 69, 78 (3d Cir. 1986), this court concluded that "although back pay is an equitable remedy and its award is subject to the discretion of the district court, the court may not bar plaintiff when his conduct was reasonable under the circumstances." But in Craig v. Y & Y Snacks, 721 F.2d 77, 82 (3d Cir. 1983), we observed that the "statute does provide for a deduction from a back pay award for 'interim earnings' or 'amounts earnable with reasonable diligence.' [citation omitted] Thus, a duty to mitigate damages is incorporated."

The district court applied the correct legal principles in considering the back pay award; therefore the plaintiff's objection to the issue on the amount of the judgment rests on factual findings which we may not overturn unless we are convinced they are clearly erroneous. Fed. R. Civ. P. 52. This is true particularly when, as here, the trial court based its findings on the credibility of a party. The judge's comments at the conclusion of the testimony reflected his reservations about the plaintiff's credibility when testifying about employment after ...

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