In a recent case before the Missouri Court of Appeals, O’Reilly Automotive Stores, Inc. (“O’Reilly”) appealed the judgment of the trial court in an action under the Missouri Human Rights Act for employment discrimination based on disability. The evidence established that the plaintiff, a former manager at O’Reilly, was disciplined and ultimately demoted for discriminatory reasons. At trial, a judgment was entered against O’Reilly which awarded the plaintiff $200,000.00 in compensatory damages and an additional $2,000,000 in punitive damages. O’Reilly appealed the punitive damages award, arguing that the plaintiff did not make a submissible case for punitive damages. The Missouri appellate court disagreed and affirmed the judgment of the trial court.
In affirming the punitive damages award, the court held that the trial court did not err in submitting punitive damages to the jury because the evidence was sufficient to allow a reasonable jury to find that it was highly probable that O’Reilly’s conduct was outrageous because of an evil motive or reckless indifference. Specifically, the evidence showed that (1) O’Reilly management and Human Resources discussed and considered the plaintiff’s disability during the time he was being disciplined and demoted; (2) its reasons for the plaintiff’s discipline leading up to his demotion changed over time; (3) during his discipline, the plaintiff’s store had consistently good sales, which was O’Reilly’s most important business objective; (4) the plaintiff’s performance reviews were similar to those of other store managers in the district that were not demoted out of leadership positions; and (5) O’Reilly began to gather documentation after the demotion of customer complaints about the plaintiff’s speech and about his falling in the store.
In its decision, the Missouri Court of Appeals noted that Section 213.111, RSMo., permits the recovery of punitive damages in an action brought under the MHRA, and that a submissible case for punitive damages requires clear and convincing proof that the defendant intentionally acted either by a wanton, willful or outrageous act, or reckless disregard for an act’s consequences (from which evil motive is inferred). In determining whether the evidence is sufficient to submit the claim for punitive damages, the evidence and all reasonable inferences are viewed in the light most favorable to submissibility. A submissible case is made if the evidence and inferences are sufficient to allow a reasonable juror to conclude that it is highly probable that the defendant’s conduct was outrageous because of evil motive or reckless indifference.
Importantly, the proof offered to support an employee’s underlying substantive claim and the employee’s additional claim for punitive damages need not be mutually exclusive, and often is not. For instance, in the O’Reilly case, the plaintiff was required to submit evidence allowing a reasonable fact-finder to conclude that his disability was a contributing factor in O’Reilly’s decision to demote him. This was important to the court, which stated: “Evidence that meets this burden may potentially allow a reasonable juror also to conclude that the defendant acted with evil motive or reckless indifference.”
Ultimately, the appellate court found that the evidence presented in support of the plaintiff’s underlying discrimination claim constituted clear and convincing evidence sufficient to allow a reasonable jury to find that it was highly probable that O’Reilly’s conduct was outrageous because of an evil motive or reckless indifference. Hence, the trial court’s judgment was affirmed.
A link to the full appellate court decision can be found here.