Jottings By An Employer's Lawyer

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Seinfeld Moment - Not Enough to Salvage $3 Million Jury Verdict

When Gary Webber had a knee problem he requested several accommodations from his employer, International Paper. Among those which were given were:

Permission to work from his home, reduced work hours, special parking privileges, reassignment from a third-floor to a first-floor office, and the installation of a “glide chair” which would permit Webber to ride from his first-floor office to the third-floor engineering department.
At some point however, one of his supervisors referred to the chair as “the Costanza chair,” a reference to a character from a popular television sitcom (Seinfeld) who used a glide chair to feign a work disability.

When a company wide reduction in force of 3,000 included engineers at his facility, Webber was one of two engineers let go. Although the company argued that he was let go because he was the only one of the engineers who did not have an engineering degree and thus did not have the capacity to do the work the others did, he alleged it was discrimination and sued. A jury agreed, awarding him $3 million.

Unfortunately for Webber, the trial court disagreed and granted his employer's motion for judgment as a matter of law. And now on appeal, the 6th Circuit agrees that even the Seinfeld moment and comment was not enough to revive his jury verdict. Webber v. International Paper (1st Cir. 8/9/05) [pdf].

Among other things that doomed the case was the failure of Webber even to establish a prima facie case. Although noting that at the trial stage mere failure to establish a prima facie case is not alone sufficient to sink a case, it is part of the equation in determining whether there is enough evidence to support a verdict. Here, the answer -- there not enough.

Thanks to Ross Runkel at the Employment Law Memo for the heads up on the case.


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