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Donlin v. Philips Lighting North America Corp.

April 23, 2009; vacated and opinion filed September 9, 2009

COLLEEN DONLIN, APPELLEE,
v.
PHILIPS LIGHTING NORTH AMERICA CORPORATION D/B/A PHILIPS LIGHTING COMPANY, APPELLANT.



On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, (D.C. No. 05-cv-00585), District Judge: Honorable Richard P. Conaboy.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hardiman, Circuit Judge

PRECEDENTIAL

Argued November 17, 2008

Before: SCIRICA, Chief Judge, FUENTES and HARDIMAN, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

Colleen Donlin sued Philips Electronics North America Corporation for employment discrimination after it failed to hire her as a full-time employee. The case was tried before a jury and Donlin was awarded $164,850 in compensatory damages. Philips appealed, raising various challenges to liability and damages. Donlin filed a cross-appeal. For the reasons that follow, we will affirm the jury's finding of liability but remand for a new trial on damages.

I.

Philips hired Donlin as a temporary warehouse employee at its Mountaintop, Pennsylvania distribution center in May 2002. Because of fluctuations in demand for Philips's products, the Mountaintop facility occasionally hired temporary employees to fill and prepare orders for shipment. Like many of the temps at the Mountaintop facility, Donlin applied for a full-time position in the plant, but was not hired. After deciding not to hire Donlin as a full-time employee, Philips ended Donlin's temporary assignment in January 2003, citing a decrease in sales volume.

Donlin sued Philips for gender discrimination and retaliation pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2, et seq., seeking compensatory and punitive damages. The District Court granted Philips summary judgment on Donlin's retaliation claim, but her gender discrimination claim proceeded to trial. At the conclusion of Donlin's case-in-chief, Philips moved for judgment as a matter of law, which the District Court denied. Philips renewed its motion for judgment as a matter of law after putting on its defense. This time, the District Court denied Philips's motion on liability grounds, but granted Philips judgment on Donlin's claim for punitive damages.

The case proceeded to the jury on the issue of liability as well as compensatory damages in the form of back pay and front pay.*fn1 The jury rendered a verdict in Donlin's favor on liability and recommended $63,050 in back pay and $395,795 in front pay, for a total of $458,845. The jury's advisory verdict on front pay was based on the premise that Donlin would have worked for 25 more years until retirement.

Following post-verdict briefing, the District Court heeded the advice of the jury on the back-pay issue, but modified its front-pay award by reducing it to account for only 10 years of damages, finding that calculating damages for a 25-year period was too speculative. The final front pay award was $101,800, for a total of $164,850 in compensatory damages.

At the conclusion of the proceedings, Philips filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, which the District Court denied. Philips now appeals, asserting errors with regard to liability, damages, and attorney's fees, and Donlin cross-appeals. We have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291.

II.

We begin with Philips's contention that the liability verdict cannot stand because the jury instructions were flawed. Specifically, Philips asserts that the District Court mischaracterized its rationale for deciding not to hire Donlin as a permanent employee. Because Philips objected to the jury instructions at trial, we review this claim for abuse of discretion.

Cooper Distrib. Co. v. Amana Refrigeration, Inc., 180 F.3d 542, 549 (3d Cir. 1999). We must determine whether, taken as a whole, the instruction properly apprised the jury of the issues and the applicable law. Dressler v. Busch Entm't Corp., 143 F.3d 778, 780 (3d Cir. 1998).

In determining liability, the trial court analyzed Donlin's employment discrimination suit under the familiar burden-shifting framework of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802-04 (1973). Donlin first had to make out a prima facie case of discrimination. Id. at 802. The burden then shifted to Philips to present a nondiscriminatory reason for declining to hire her. Tex. Dep't of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 252-53 (1981). Donlin then had to demonstrate that the reasons claimed by Philips were pretextual. See Fuentes v. Perskie, 32 F.3d 759, 764 (3d Cir. 1994).

Philips contends that the District Court's jury charge distorted step two of the McDonnell Douglas framework by mischaracterizing its nondiscriminatory reasons for choosing not to hire Donlin. The District Court's instruction to the jury provided, in relevant part:

I instruct you . . . that Philips Lighting has given in this case what is generally accepted as a nondiscriminatory reason for its failure to hire Ms. Donlin. They told you that their decision was based on her record of attendance, production, and accuracy as compared to all the other applicants that they considered for the same job. I instruct you, members of the jury, that if you disbelieve Philips's explanation for its conduct, then you may -- you may not, but you may very well find that Ms. Donlin has proved intentional discrimination.

(emphasis added).

Philips zeroes in on the word "accuracy," claiming that it should not have been included in the instruction because it was not a relevant factor in the company's hiring decision. Because the instructions did not accurately summarize the company's reasons for choosing not to hire Donlin, Philips argues, the jury was invited to find that Philips's rationale for not hiring Donlin was pretextual since Philips never claimed that Donlin was "inaccurate."

Philips tacitly accuses the District Court of pulling the issue of "accuracy" out of thin air, contending that its witnesses consistently described the company's hiring factors as only attendance, productivity, and quality of work. This argument is belied by the record. In response to a question regarding which factors were important when hiring a temporary worker for permanent employment, Donlin's shift supervisor, Duane Wright, agreed that the company considered production, attendance, and accuracy to be of "paramount importance." Additionally, at various stages of the trial, the jury heard testimony regarding "picking errors," which occurred when an employee failed to correctly collect products for an order; such errors can fairly be described as involving accuracy.

By taking issue with the District Court's use of the word "accuracy," Philips claims reversible error by latching on to one word in a 23-page jury charge. We are not persuaded. We begin by noting that a mistake in a jury instruction constitutes reversible error only if it fails to "fairly and adequately" present the issues in the case without confusing or misleading the jury. United States v. Ellis, 156 F.3d 493, 498 n.7 (3d Cir. 1998). We cannot say that the use of the single word "accuracy" so altered the jury's thinking as to give such a misimpression in this case. Indeed, there is a logical connection between an employee's accuracy and her quality of work and productivity. As a temporary warehouse employee, Donlin filled and prepared orders for shipment. If she could not prepare orders accurately, the quality of her work would suffer. To suggest otherwise is overly semantic. Accordingly, we find that the District Court met its responsibility to provide the jury with a clear articulation of the relevant law. See United States v. Goldblatt, 813 F.2d 619, 623 (3d Cir. 1987).

The trial judge is permitted considerable latitude to summarize and comment upon the evidence, provided that the jury is neither confused nor misled. Am. Home Assur. Co. v. Sunshine Supermarket, Inc., 753 F.2d 321, 327 (3d Cir. 1985); Hickey v. United States, 208 F.2d 269, 274 (3d Cir. 1953). Jury instructions are to be read as a whole, United States v. Flores, 454 F.3d 149, 157 (3d Cir. 2006), and it is wrong to suggest that the word "accuracy" so infected the instructions as to confuse or mislead the jury. Viewing the jury's instructions in their entirety and in ...


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