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Salami v. Von Maur, Inc.

Court of Appeal of Iowa

July 24, 2013

IDORENYIN SALAMI, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
VON MAUR, INC., and SARA WHITLOCK, Defendants-Appellees.

Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Glenn E. Pille, Judge.

Idorenyin Salami appeals following a jury verdict in favor of defendants in her race discrimination and harassment action.

Brooke Timmer and Whitney Judkins of Fiedler & Timmer, P.L.L.C., Urbandale, for appellant.

Frank Harty and Debra L. Hulett of Nyemaster Goode, P.C., Des Moines, for appellees.

Heard by Potterfield, P.J., and Danilson and Mullins, JJ.

DANILSON, J.

Idorenyin Salami appeals following a jury verdict in her race discrimination and harassment action in favor of defendants Von Maur and Sara Whitlock. Salami argues the district court abused its discretion and she was prejudiced when the court refused to admit evidence regarding other complaints of racial discrimination made by other employees and a customer. We conclude the district court properly exercised its discretion in its preliminary ruling. However, we believe the plaintiff was entitled to present at least some limited testimony of complaints by other employees and a customer because it was relevant and probative of Whitlock's allegedly discriminatory motive or intent, in rebuttal to Whitlock's presentation of evidence that she had relatives and relationships with persons of color. We reverse and remand for a new trial.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

Idorenyin Salami came to the United States from Nigeria in 2004. She started working at the Valley West Mall Von Maur store in West Des Moines as a sales associate on December 6, 2004. Her store manager at that time was Dawn Kountze. Kountze promoted Salami to department manager in a men's department, Men's Concepts, on September 30, 2007. Salami received high marks on her performance reviews.

Sara Whitlock became store manager at the Valley West Von Maur store in April 2008. Whitlock fired Salami on June 5, 2009, after receiving three customer complaints about Salami over a ten-month period.

Salami filed a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission on November 30, 2009, and filed this race discrimination and harassment action against Von Maur and Whitlock on June 29, 2010.

Defendants' Motion in Limine.

Salami intended to offer the testimony of two African-American former employees for Von Maur, both of whom also had been supervised by and fired by Whitlock, and a Von Maur customer—all of whom complained of racial discrimination by Whitlock. The defendants filed a motion in limine seeking exclusion of that evidence, which the district court granted. The court reasoned:

Well, let the record show the Court has considered the filings and the arguments made in regard to paragraph 2 of defendants' first motion in limine. And candidly, this is the one area that I perhaps struggled mostly with since I was aware of the issues being raised.
I note on the one side the defendant is arguing that these are simply evidence of allegations made against the defendants, that they are mere allegations, that they're not relevant to the ultimate question before this Court; basically, that is whether or not Ms. Salami was discriminated against.
The defendant argues that they are mere complaints and as such they are not probative of that ultimate question. They argue that to try this matter on mere allegations is overly prejudicial within the rules and, as they argue, it would result in a number of mini trials before this Court and before this jury to determine the truth or falsity of those particular matters.
On the other hand, the Court acknowledges the case law submitted by the plaintiff that evidence of discrimination against other employees would be relevant to the issue of pretext.
Candidly, the Court has reviewed at least the three areas that I think are the subject matter of this particular area, those involving a Ms. Koger, a Ms. Byrd, B-y-r-d, and a Mr. Lopez. The Court in ruling on this matter notes that obviously the Court and the jury is here to try the ultimate issue raised by the defendant—or raised by the plaintiff in this particular case. The case should not be tried on allegations. The Court notes that, as I indicated, in plaintiffs—defendants' argument that mere complaints of harassment are not probative of whether harassment occurred, or whether or not there was a hostile work environment.
The Court finds that the prejudice to the defendant of the allegations outweighs the probative value of going into each of those instances. The introduction of each of those would in fact create mini trials within a trial itself.
And perhaps most importantly, I do acknowledge that the question of whether evidence of other discrimination is relevant is— in an individual case is fact-based on many factors closely related to the plaintiff's circumstances and theory of the case. And in this particular case, the Court is not satisfied that the alleged discriminatory acts regarding Koger and Byrd and Lopez are sufficient to be admissible in this case. They are allegations. The facts are significantly different. The mere allegation is without a showing of similarity sufficient to justify its admission in this case. As I said, it will result in mini trials.
And accordingly, the Court grants paragraph 2 of the defendants' motion in limine. This case will be tried on the issue of whether or not discrimination was committed against this particular defendant and not on allegations regarding other employees.

The court overruled the defendants' motion in limine to exclude Salami's expert witness, Phillip Goff. In response to the motion, the plaintiff had argued,

While Defendants are correct that Dr. Goff does not opine that discrimination occurred in the case at bar, that certainly does not mean his testimony is of no assistance to the trier of fact. Rather, as Dr. Goff's report indicates, he will explain the concept of implicit racial bias and how the presence of certain factors within an organization may lead to discriminatory decision making—even from well-meaning individuals. . . .
Dr. Goff's conclusions are based on a simple examination of the factors that have long been known to make it more likely for implicit bias to occur and those that make it less likely that implicit bias will occur. It should be noted that the focus of Dr. Goff's proposed testimony is not whether Plaintiff herself was discriminated against. Social science has no way of knowing that. What scientists do know, based on decades of peer-reviewed research, is what factors in an organization and in a decision-making process tend to make it more likely that discrimination will occur. These are essentially ...

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