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Murrell-Travland v. On Q Financial, Inc.

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

July 30, 2013

Lindsay R. Murrell-Travland; and Sonny N. Travland, Plaintiffs,
On Q Financial, Inc., an Arizona corporation, Defendant.


G. MURRAY SNOW, District Judge.

Pending before the Court is the verdict on Plaintiff Lindsay Travland's Title VII pregnancy discrimination claim and the issue of appropriate equitable relief.


Travland claimed that Defendant On Q Financial, Inc. discharged her on the basis of her pregnancy in violation of Title VII's prohibition on sex discrimination.[1] After hearing all the evidence, the jury returned a verdict that answered specific interrogatories. The jury made the following determinations: (1) Travland's pregnancy or her request to take time off for childbirth was a motivating factor for On Q's decision to discharge her; (2) On Q's decision to discharge Travland was also motivated by a lawful reason; (3) On Q would not have made the same decision to discharge Travland even if Travland's pregnancy or her request to take time off for childbirth had played no role in On Q's decision to discharge Travland; (4) Travland was entitled to compensatory damages; and (5) Travland was not entitled to punitive damages. (Doc. 92.) The jury awarded Travland $68, 000 in compensatory damages.

Nevertheless, the parties acknowledge that, pursuant to statute, a jury's award of compensatory and punitive damages on Title VII claims against an employer of On Q's size are collectively capped at $50, 000, in addition to any equitable back pay award to be calculated by the Court. 42 U.S.C. § 1981a(b)(3)(A). The Court therefore reduces the compensatory damages award on Travland's claim to $50, 000.


Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 permits courts to grant equitable remedies to employees who have been subjected to impermissible discrimination by employers with fifteen or more employees. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(g). "The relevant remedies include reinstatement and awards of back pay and front pay." Caudle v. Bristow Optical Co., Inc., 224 F.3d 1014, 1020 (9th Cir. 2000). "The district court has wide discretion in awarding remedies to make a Title VII plaintiff whole." Odima v. Westin Tucson Hotel, 53 F.3d 1484, 1495 (9th Cir. 1995). In making its equitable award, the Court relied on the following determinations.

Travland is seeking back pay for a 53 week period from October 9, 2007, the day of her termination, until October 15, 2008.

At the time of her termination, Travland's yearly salary was $68, 000. Her weekly salary was therefore $1, 307.69.

The appropriate cutoff date for back pay is the end of March 2008. The uncontroverted evidence is that Travland had a job offer on that date from Colonial Insurance. Under Title VII's provisions for back pay, "interim earnings or amounts earnable with reasonable diligence by the person or persons discriminated against shall operate to reduce the back pay otherwise allowable." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(g)(1). Consequently, a plaintiff seeking back pay has "a duty to mitigate damages by seeking alternative employment with reasonable diligence.'" Caudle, 224 F.3d at 1020. The Supreme Court described this duty as "ancient" and observed that, "[a]lthough the unemployed or underemployed claimant need not go into another line of work, accept a demotion, or take a demeaning position, he forfeits his right to backpay if he refuses a job substantially equivalent to the one he was denied." Ford Motor Co. v. E. E. O. C., 458 U.S. 219, 231-32 (1982). This is "because the availability of [a] better job terminates the ongoing ill effects of the defendant's refusal to hire the claimant." Id. at 234. The defendant bears the burden of showing "(1) there were suitable positions available for [plaintiff]; and (2) she failed to use reasonable care and diligence in seeking out those positions." E.E.O.C. v. High Speed Enter., Inc., 833 F.Supp.2d 1153, 1162 (D. Ariz. 2011) (citing Jackson v. Shell Oil, 702 F.2d 197, 202 (9th Cir. 1983); E.E.O.C. v. Farmer Bros. Co., 31 F.3d 891, 906 (9th Cir. 1994)).

The primary question is whether the Colonial Insurance job was suitable. While this position required a different skill-set than her work as a mortgage loan processor, Travland testified that she had been performing similar work and had even formed an LLC to focus on business-to-business group health insurance. With regard to income, Travland testified that she could have earned $75, 000-100, 000 a year in commissions working as an independent contractor with Colonial. That arrangement differs from her previous position, which came with the comfort of a salary, benefits, and overtime. Still, that salary was $7, 000 less than the low end of Travland's own estimate of what she would likely make as an independent contractor for Colonial. In light of the significantly higher level of income (at least 10%) that Travland would gain working for Colonial and the fact that Travland already had the necessary skill-set to succeed in that job, the Court concludes that the Colonial job was substantially equivalent to the position Travland held with On Q. Travland's contention that taking the job would present childcare complications does not make the job unsuitable. Any full-time position would require childcare adjustments. The fact that this job would have paid on commission does not so complicate the matter of paying for childcare as to render it unsuitable. Consequently, her refusal to take that job terminates On Q's liability for back pay.

Because the position was offered at the end of March 2008, the Court will terminate On Q's back pay liability at the first week of April 2008. Travland is consequently entitled to 25 weeks of back pay. Her unadjusted pay entitlement is $32, 692.30.

At the time of her termination, Travland had accrued 145 hours of "paid time off" or PTO. She was earning an annual salary of $68, 000, at an hourly rate (assuming a 5 day, 8 hour workweek) of $32.69. She was therefore entitled to $4, 740.38 in accrued PTO. However, Travland testified that she had to take six weeks off of work to deliver her baby and would have exhausted any accrued PTO for that purpose. Because the Court has not yet deducted any of those six weeks from her back pay entitlement, the PTO is already included in her back pay recovery.[2]

The Court now makes the following deductions from the $32, 692.30. As discussed above, Travland was under doctor's orders not to return to work after her delivery for six weeks, which amounts to 30 work days, or 240 work hours. She would have used her 145 hours of PTO to cover some of that time off, but would not be working for the remaining 95 hours. Travland did not testify that she would have otherwise been working and entitled to her salary ...

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