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Ward v. AutoZoners, LLC

United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

September 20, 2019, Argued; May 11, 2020, Decided

No. 18-2100, No. 18-2170

Opinion

FLOYD, Circuit Judge:

Before us is a matter arising from a jury verdict rendered in a sexual harassment case. In 2012, Defendant-Appellant/Cross-Appellee AutoZoners, LLC [*2]  (AutoZone) hired Plaintiff-Appellee/Cross-Appellant Keith Ward as a part-time employee at its Whiteville, North Carolina store. Months later, the same AutoZone store hired Christina Atkinson. Shortly after she started working alongside Ward, Atkinson began groping him and engaging in sexually explicit language at work. Ward eventually quit and sued AutoZone, alleging violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and North Carolina law. A jury found AutoZone liable for creating a hostile work environment and for intentional infliction of emotional distress, and awarded both compensatory and punitive damages. AutoZone appealed, and Ward cross-appealed and conditionally cross-appealed, each raising a litany of issues. For the reasons set out below, we reverse the award of punitive damages for Ward's Title VII and state law claims and remand with instructions to the district court. However, as to AutoZone's duplicative recovery, jury instruction, and evidentiary error challenges, we affirm the district court.

AutoZone is an automotive parts and accessories retailer and distributor with stores nationwide. On September 16, 2012, AutoZone hired Ward as a part-time commercial driver [*3]  at its Whiteville, North Carolina store. Months later, around March 2013, it hired Atkinson to work at the same store. Though Ward and Atkinson began with different roles at the store, they worked alongside each other.

Soon after she was hired, Atkinson began sexually harassing Ward. Many times, she not only made sexually offensive remarks toward Ward but also groped him. Once, for instance, Atkinson joked to Ward and Wanda Smith—a commercial sales manager who directly managed Ward and Atkinson and was responsible for the commercial section of the store—that she had performed oral sex on her husband for three hours the previous evening. Another time, Atkinson "dragged her . . . fingers" across Ward's buttocks, J.A. 504, and, a few days later, "grabbed [Ward's] nipple through [his] shirt and twisted it until [he] had a bruise," J.A. 508-09. At other times still, Atkinson grabbed Ward's crotch; "jiggled and squeezed" his buttocks in Smith's presence, J.A. 518; poked his nipples with a pencil; and shoved him into a shelf, pressed her head to his chest, and rubbed his nipple. Despite Ward's repeated requests, Atkinson did not stop.

AutoZone had a written sexual harassment policy while this [*4]  happened, of course. As then written, the policy defined sexual harassment to include "sexual flirtations, advances, and propositions"; "requests for sexual favors"; "verbal abuse of a sexual nature"; "gestures or verbal comments about an individual's body"; "sexually degrading words"; or "the display of sexually suggestive objects or pictures in the workplace." J.A. 2067. It also required employees "who receive a complaint or become aware of any harassment" to "report it immediately to management" or other officials. J.A. 2067. And AutoZone had a general reporting procedure for workplace issues, which included sexual harassment incidents. Generally, employees were to report such incidents to their immediate supervisor. Should an employee feel uncomfortable doing so or believe that their manager would inadequately respond to the incident, though, they could report it to "higher levels of management," like the store manager or district manager. J.A. 2070-71. In any event, management were to "thoroughly investigate[] each reported allegation." J.A. 2070-71. AutoZone also administered an online test to its managers to assess their knowledge regarding its sexual harassment policy.

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2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 14940 *

KEITH WARD, Plaintiff — Appellee, v. AUTOZONERS, LLC, Defendant — Appellant. EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, Amicus Supporting Appellee.KEITH WARD, Plaintiff — Appellant, v. AUTOZONERS, LLC, Defendant — Appellee. EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, Amicus Supporting Appellant.

Prior History:  [*1] Appeals from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, at New Bern. (7:15-cv-00164-FL). Louise W. Flanagan, District Judge.

Ward v. AutoZoners, LLC, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 225443 (E.D.N.C., Feb. 11, 2019)

Disposition: AFFIRMED IN PART, REVERSED IN PART, AND REMANDED WITH INSTRUCTIONS.

CORE TERMS

punitive damages, district court, managerial capacity, reckless indifference, compensatory damages, employees, intentional discrimination, harassment, argues, instructions, managerial employee, malice, hired, sexual harassment, sexually, reasonable jury, managerial, quotation, rights, jury instructions, intentionally, convincing, willful, marks, vicariously liable, evidentiary error, matter of law, complaints, award of punitive damages, discriminatory practice

Civil Procedure, Appeals, Standards of Review, De Novo Review, Trials, Judgment as Matter of Law, Postverdict Judgment, Labor & Employment Law, Remedies, Damages, Punitive Damages, Torts, Punitive Damages, Availability, Employers, Vicarious Liability, Agency Relationships, Employers, Scope of Employment, Factors, Evidence, Burdens of Proof, Preponderance of Evidence, Measurement of Damages, Statutory Requirements, Clear & Convincing Proof, Abuse of Discretion, Judgments, Relief From Judgments, Altering & Amending Judgments, Damages, Jury Trials, Verdicts, Inconsistent Verdicts, Jury Instructions, Jury Instructions, Requests for Instructions, General Overview, Harmless & Invited Errors, Harmless Error Rule, Criminal Law & Procedure, Standards of Review