Age discrimination found where employer made deliberate decision to hire young females at cash registers; punitive damages instruction constituted manifest injustice in employment discrimination claim: CHILDERS OIL CO. V. ADKINS (SC 6/19/2008)

CHILDERS OIL CO. INC. V. ADKINS
EMPLOYMENT:  Age discrimination found where employer made deliberate decision to hire young females at cash registers;  punitive damages instruction constituted manifest injustice in employment discrimination claim
2007-SC-000032-DG.pdf
PUBLISHED: AFFIRMING IN PART AND REVERSING IN PART
OPINION BY NOBLE
FROM PIKE COUNTY
DATE RENDERED: 6/19/2008

This case is on appeal from the Kentucky Court of Appeals, which affirmed the ruling of the Pike Circuit Court where Appellant, Childers Oil Company, Inc. (Childers), was held liable for age discrimination in employment and had judgment entered against it for compensatory damages, including lost wages and emotional distress, and punitive damages.

Childers raised four claims of error: (1) that its motion to dismiss should have been granted as it was not a proper party to the action; (2) that its motion for directed verdict at the close of all evidence should have been granted because Appellee, Bertha Adkins, failed to establish that Childers’s reason for laying her off was a mere pretext; (3) that it was error for the circuit court to give an instruction on punitive damages for a cause of action under the Kentucky Civil Rights Act; and (4) that the circuit court erred by not granting Childre’s motion for judgment n.o.v. or motion for a new trial because the award for emotional distress was not allowed under KRS 344.450 or, alternatively, the award was excessive .

There was testimony that store management had made a deliberate decision to seek to place young females at the cash registers, and the jury was informed of specific comments to that effect and that the store manager had told an employee  that "the company wanted pretty, young girls up front to draw in truck drivers and the `young ones’ went `up there."’

In addition, a young female employee, Sabrina, was hired only eleven days prior to the claimant Adkins’s discharge. At least five other persons, all more than ten years younger than Adkins, were hired to work in the store not long after Adkins’s discharge. Lastly, although Adkins had originally been hired as a cashier and had held that position for several months, Childers retained the younger, less-experienced Sabrina and discharged the older, more-experienced Adkins.

In light of the evidence and testimony offered it was reasonable for the jury to conclude that Childers’s reason for discharging Adkins was a mere pretext: Adkins was already trained and experienced as a cashier, yet Sabrina was hired just days prior to Adkins’s discharge, and at least five other younger individuals were hired as cashiers between the time of Adkins’s discharge and the store closing. The directed verdict motion was properly denied .

The trial court’s instruction allowing punitive damages for an action brought under KRS 344.450 then, after the Supreme Court of Kentucky had expressly denied the availability of such damages, was clearly erroneous. The court concludes that that erroneous instruction resulted in a manifest injustice.

By Michael Stevens, ed.

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