Sunbeam Television Corp. v. Mitzel, No. 3D11–0249, 2012 WL 126784 (Fla. 3rd DCA Jan. 18, 2012): Failing to Present Claims in Administrative Phase Can Prove Costly
January 30, 2012
On January 18, 2012, the Third District Court of Appeal released an opinion which should be read by any employment lawyer, or non-lawyer, who may be considering filing an employment discrimination claim in Florida. In Sunbeam Television Corp. v. Mitzel, 3D11-0249, the Court reversed a jury verdict which had been rendered in Mitzel’s favor in the amount of $790,000 for past lost wages and benefits, $97,000 for future wages and benefits, and $50,000 for punitive damages. Why? Two reasons.
First, Mitzel and her attorneys made the mistake of filing an administrative claim based only on age discrimination. After the administrative process was complete, Mitzel filed a complaint in State court, again alleging discrimination based on her age. However, as the case progressed to the summary judgment stage, Mitzel’s claim evolved into an age-plus-gender discrimination claim, which, according to the Court, “might allow Mitzel to muddy the waters, by reference to the Title VII standard for recovery, where a claim of discrimination can be advanced on a plaintiff’s claim that being an older woman was “a motivating factor” for her employer’s action.” Sunbeam Television Corp., 2012 WL 126784 at *4 (citing Gross v. FBL Finan. Srvcs., Inc., 557 U.S. 167 (2009)). Because Mitzel had not claimed age-plus-gender discrimination during the administrative proceedings, the Third DCA found that Mitzel’s age-plus-gender discrimination claim was administratively barred, and should not have been allowed to be presented to the jury.
Second, the Third DCA found that the trial court committed reversible error by allowing Mitzel’s expert to testify in generic terms as to the entire broadcast news industry, rather than about any specific practices of the employer, Sunbeam Television Corporation. The Court described the expert’s testimony as “ . . . no more than an unsupported running theory that age discrimination against women is pervasive within the broadcast news industry.” Sunbeam Television Corp., 2012 WL 126784 at *9. If that comment were not enough to let you know how the Court felt about the quality of the expert’s testimony, the Court summarized the effect of the expert testimony as follows:
In sum, Dr. Howard–Byrd’s testimony reached beyond the scope of this case to come to conclusions she was not competent to reach, and served only to interject irrelevant conjecture into the jury’s consideration, all to Sunbeam’s prejudice. This pervasive discussion of a generalized distaste for older woman in the news industry by this expert unfairly suggested Mitzel’s termination was caused by the same kind of discrimination, and certainly diverted the jury from its task of deciding whether Mitzel’s age was the “but for” cause of her contract being terminated in this case. This was wholly improper and so prejudicial as to warrant reversal and a new trial.
Sunbeam Television Corp., 2012 WL 126784 at *10.
What is to be learned from this case? Two things. First, if you rely on expert testimony during litigation, be sure that your expert witness is able to testify as to your specific case, as opposed to the industry in general. Second, and perhaps most important, when you are filing an administrative complaint, be sure to check off any and all boxes/categories which might encompass the discrimination claim.