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Hubbell v. Fedex Smartpost, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

August 5, 2019

Sheryl Hubbell, Plaintiff-Appellee/Cross-Appellant,
v.
FedEx SmartPost, Inc., Defendant-Appellant/Cross-Appellee.

          Argued: January 16, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan at Detroit. No. 2:14-cv-13897-George Caram Steeh, III, District Judge.

         ARGUED:

          John J. Bursch, BURSCH LAW PLLC, Caledonia, Michigan, for Appellant/Cross-Appellee.

          Raymond Guzall III, Farmington Hills, Michigan, for Appellee/Cross-Appellant.

         ON BRIEF:

          John J. Bursch, BURSCH LAW PLLC, Caledonia, Michigan, for Appellant/Cross-Appellee.

          Raymond Guzall III, Farmington Hills, Michigan, for Appellee/Cross-Appellant. Anne Noel Occhialino, Susan R. Oxford, EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, Washington, D.C., for Amicus Curiae.

          Before: BOGGS, KETHLEDGE, and STRANCH, Circuit Judges.

          OPINION

          JANE B. STRANCH, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Sheryl Hubbell worked for Defendant FedEx SmartPost, Inc. ("FedEx") as a parcel sorter in Belleville, Michigan. She alleges that her manager told her she should accept a demotion because "females are better suited to administrative roles and males are better suited to leadership roles," repeatedly disciplined her, then eventually demoted her from her position as lead parcel sorter based on her sex. She also alleges that FedEx retaliated against her for filing complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and for filing a lawsuit by unfairly disciplining her, not allowing her to earn extra pay by clocking in early or clocking out late, and closely surveilling her. Eventually, she was fired.

         FedEx appeals from the jury verdict finding in favor of Hubbell on her Title VII retaliation claim. Hubbell cross-appeals the reduction of her attorney's fees from the requested amount. Because sufficient evidence supported the jury's verdict on both liability and punitive damages, and because the district court did not abuse its discretion in granting Hubbell attorney's fees but reducing the amount, we AFFIRM the district court's judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Evidence of Retaliation at Trial

         1. Hubbell's testimony

         Sheryl Hubbell worked for FedEx in Belleville, Michigan from September 2006 to December 2014. She was hired as a part-time parcel assistant in 2006 and promoted to a fulltime parcel sorter in 2007. In 2010, she was promoted to lead parcel sorter, a non-management position that involved some supervisory responsibilities.

         In February or March of 2011, Todd Treman took over as Hubbell's "hub manager." In August 2011, Treman suggested in a one-on-one meeting that Hubbell demote herself to an administrative role because he felt "that females are better suited to administrative roles and males are better suited to leadership roles." Then, in January 2012, Treman suggested again that Hubbell demote herself. He told her that she should "take the demotion, and if [she] didn't, things would continue to get harder for [her]." Hubbell responded that she did not want to be demoted. Before this meeting, Hubbell had never been subject to disciplinary action and had received several awards and certificates for her performance from 2007 to 2010.

         After this meeting, Hubbell's supervisors took several actions that made her job harder. Low-performing parcel sorters were placed in Hubbell's area or the area of other female lead parcel sorters, making the female leads look bad. She was also not given enough workers. Starting in the peak season of 2011, Hubbell was given multiple, conflicting work assignments by her direct supervisors, then criticized for failing to complete all of them effectively; so were other female lead parcel sorters. She received her first written discipline in July 2012, then another in September 2012; she contested the factual basis for both. She also received a poor performance review for fiscal year 2012; she contested the factual basis for this performance review as well.

         Hubbell sent an email to the managing director of Human Resources about this performance review and Treman's comment that he thought women were not suited for leadership or management roles. Guy Larsen, a senior manager from Human Resources, was sent to meet with Hubbell in response to her complaint. She told Larsen that Treman was discriminating against her because he "did not want females in management." Larsen responded that he preferred the term "favoritism" to "discrimination" because "discrimination" was an "inflammatory word." Rather than addressing Hubbell's concerns about discrimination, Larsen told her that "maybe [she] just had a bad review, and to keep [her] head down, and let the managers do their job."

         Despite complaining to Human Resources, Hubbell continued to have trouble at work following the negative performance review and to be subject to disciplinary actions that she believed to be unwarranted. Eventually, on August 28, 2013, she was demoted to parcel sorter on the ground that she was not a competent leader.

         On November 7, 2013, Hubbell filed a sex-discrimination and retaliation complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). After she filed this complaint, she was "watched more closely by management. [Her] daily actions, [and her] work routine was scrutinized. [She] experienced write up after write up after write up." She disputed the validity of various disciplinary actions she had received. In addition, at some point after she was demoted, she was told that she could not clock in more than three minutes early-other workers could clock in up to 15 minutes early and would receive extra pay as a result-and that she could not work more than eight hours in a day.

         On March 10, 2014, Hubbell filed a second complaint with the EEOC, alleging retaliation. She testified that after she filed this second complaint, she experienced further retaliation. Her managers instructed security guards to monitor how long she was taking on her bathroom breaks although she had not had any issues with her bathroom breaks previously. She was disciplined for four purportedly unexcused absences even though she provided doctor's notes excusing these absences and was on medical leave. She was told by managers to remove her tinted safety glasses, which an ophthalmologist had directed her to wear. Managers monitored Hubbell's conversations with other workers while she was on break. They would ask the other employees what they had talked about. A manager asked her to approve changes to her timesheet that would make it look like she had clocked in for work at 11:09-making her late- when she had in fact clocked in at 11:03. In 2014, for the first time since she started working at FedEx, Hubbell was not given extra hours during "peak time." She received disciplinary writeups for leaving early when other workers left early without being subject to disciplinary action, or when she had cleared leaving with her supervisors in compliance with company policy. Finally, in December 2014, Hubbell was fired, supposedly because she had left work early. Hubbell had received no disciplinary writeups prior to Treman becoming the hub manager, and 15 or 16 disciplinary actions in total after he became the manager.

         Hubbell filed suit against FedEx in October 2014, shortly before she was fired. Subsequently, in February 2015, she filed a third and final complaint with the EEOC, alleging that she was fired in retaliation for filing this lawsuit.

         2. Other FedEx employees' testimony

         Alphonse Reed was a part-time shipping and receiving employee at FedEx from 2008 to 2014. He testified that he witnessed Hubbell receive less help than other employees when she was lead parcel sorter. He also testified that sometimes Hubbell could not speak to him while they were at work because she was always being watched. Management started watching her in June or August of 2013. He was allowed to talk to other employees, just not Hubbell. Management treated her "[l]ike a dog." She was treated worse than any other employee.

         James Massie, Jr. worked as a security guard at the FedEx location in Belleville for about two years, leaving in December 2013. After Hubbell was demoted, management started a log to record when employees took bathroom breaks. Massie was told to keep track of how long Hubbell took on her bathroom breaks; she was the only employee he was told to watch. He was also told not to let Hubbell clock in early with the other full-time employees; she had to wait with the part-time employees. This started three or four months before he left in December 2013. During the time he worked there, Massie never saw management treat another employee as badly as Hubbell.

         3. Evidence that FedEx knew of Hubbell's complaints

         Hubbell put FedEx on notice a number of times that she had filed an EEOC complaint. After she was demoted, she told manager Bill Mullins that she was considering filing a complaint for discrimination outside of FedEx; then, in March 2014, she told him that she had filed an EEOC complaint. She told manager John Molnar before filing her first EEOC complaint that "if things didn't change," she would "escalate the situation out of FedEx, that [she] would make the complaint outside of the company, meaning the EEOC." She told manager Lauren Fishwick on January 31, 2014 that she had filed an EEOC complaint; Fishwick relayed this information to Human Resources via an email. And Hubbell wrote at the bottom of several disciplinary actions she received later in 2014 that she was being disciplined in retaliation for her EEOC complaint(s).

         There is little evidence, however, that any of these managers knew that Hubbell had filed a lawsuit. Hubbell herself did not testify that she had directly informed anyone at FedEx of her lawsuit. And Treman testified that he did not learn that Hubbell had filed a lawsuit until January or February 2015, after he had fired her. The closest thing to evidence of knowledge was manager Clay Jensen's testimony on cross-examination that he did not remember whether he had made a comment to another employee about Hubbell filing a lawsuit before she ...


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