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Lenius v. Deere & Co.

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Eastern Division

February 13, 2015

WANDA JO LENIUS, Plaintiff,
v.
DEERE & COMPANY, et al., Defendants. GAYLE LELA FORSTER, Plaintiff,
v.
DEERE & COMPANY, et al., Defendants.

RULING ON MOTIONS IN LIMINE

JON STUART SCOLES, Magistrate Judge.

On the 9th day of February 2015, these matters came on for hearing on the Motion in Limine filed by the Plaintiffs on January 23, 2015 and the Motion in Limine filed by the Defendants on the same date. The Plaintiffs were represented by their attorneys, Gregory T. Racette, Amy B. Pellegrin, and Patrick T. Vint. Defendants were represented by their attorneys, Frank Harty, Debra Hulett, Angel A. West, Frances M. Haas, and Ryan W. Leemkuil.

Plaintiffs' motion in limine has 14 numbered paragraphs. Defendants' motion in limine has 41 numbered paragraphs. The Court will address the issues raised by referring to the numbered paragraphs found in the motions in limine.

PLAINTIFFS' MOTION IN LIMINE

1. Settlement Discussions. Plaintiffs ask that Defendants be prohibited from making any reference to settlement discussions. Defendants do not resist, and make a similar request in paragraph 12 of their motion in limine. Accordingly, paragraph 1 is granted. Neither party shall introduce any evidence regarding settlement discussions, settlement offers, or offers to compromise.

2. Collateral Sources of Income. After they left active employment at Deere, both Plaintiffs received a "salary continuance benefit" - which is similar to a short-term disability benefit - for a period of one year. When the salary continuance benefit expired, both Plaintiffs transitioned to long-term disability benefits. Both Plaintiffs are continuing to receive long-term disability benefits funded by Deere. In addition, both Plaintiffs have applied for and received social security benefits, which are ongoing.

Plaintiffs argue that these income sources may not be offset against their claim for damages. Accordingly, Plaintiffs ask that Defendants be prohibited from offering any evidence regarding these payments. Furthermore, Plaintiffs argue that even if these benefits are properly offset against their damages, that is an issue which should be addressed by the Court after the jury has returned its verdict. Defendants contend that Plaintiffs' damages are properly offset by the payments received, particularly those funded by the employer. Moreover, Defendants argue that the evidence is admissible for other purposes, such as impeachment, even if the payments are not offset against damages.

The issue in the liability phase of the trial is whether Plaintiffs' failure to be mapped to paygrade 7 when GJE was implemented was because of the work being performed by Plaintiffs, or because of age and sex discrimination. Generally, evidence regarding Plaintiffs' damages will be inadmissible during the liability phase of the trial. Accordingly, even if payments made by Deere must be offset in determining Plaintiffs' damages, that evidence would be inadmissible during the liability phase. Moreover, because there will be no evidence of damages in the liability phase, it is difficult for me to see why it would be necessary to impeach Plaintiffs on these issues during the liability phase. Accordingly, the Court concludes that evidence regarding Plaintiffs' sources of income after leaving active employment at Deere are inadmissible during the liability phase of the trial. Admissibility of this evidence in the damages phase, and the offset of collateral sources against Plaintiffs' damages, will be discussed elsewhere.

3. Prior Complaints of Discrimination. In 1997, Lenius sued a former employer, claiming sexual harassment and discrimination. In a complaint filed with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, Lenius (who at that time was known as Wanda Halverson) complained of sexual harassment, hostile work environment, and retaliation, forcing her to seek psychological and medical treatment.[1] In the petition subsequently filed by Lenius in the Iowa District Court for Black Hawk County, she claimed both sex and age discrimination.[2] Apparently, the action was dismissed in 1999. It is unclear whether there was any monetary settlement. Plaintiffs argue that evidence regarding the prior lawsuit is inadmissible. Defendants disagree.

In support of their respective positions, both parties cite Batiste-Davis v. Lincare, Inc., 526 F.3d 377 (8th Cir. 2008). There, the plaintiff sued her employer, claiming she was not promoted because of her race. The defendant offered evidence at the trial that the plaintiff had filed another lawsuit six years earlier alleging discrimination by another employer. The plaintiff argued that admission of the evidence was error. On appeal, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals noted that "[p]rior acts include prior lawsuits" and, therefore, the issue was properly analyzed under FEDERAL RULE OF EVIDENCE 404(b). Id. at 380. Evidence of prior acts "is not admissible to prove a person's character, " but may be admissible to prove motive, intent, preparation, or plan. FED. R. EVID. 404(b).

Evidence of prior acts may be admitted if "(1) relevant to a material issue; (2) proved by a preponderance of the evidence; (3) higher in probative value than in prejudicial effect; and (4) similar in kind and close in time to the event at issue."

Batiste-Davis, 526 F.3d at 380 (quoting Berry v. Oswalt, 143 F.3d 1127, 1132 (8th Cir. 1998)).

The Batiste-Davis court first noted that "[o]ther courts generally do not admit evidence of prior suits unless they were fraudulently filed." Id. (citing cases from the First, Second, and Seventh Circuits). In the Eighth Circuit, however, "[e]vidence of a prior lawsuit may be admitted on a case-by-case basis if it meets the four requirements of this circuit's test." Id. In Batiste-Davis, the Court found that the prior lawsuit was relevant, similar, and "probably close enough in time." Id. (the first lawsuit was filed six years earlier). In analyzing the third requirement, however, the Court concluded that the probative value of the prior lawsuit was substantially outweighed by its unfair prejudice and, therefore, the district court abused its discretion in admitting evidence of the plaintiff's prior lawsuit. Id. at 381. The Court noted that "[t]he charge of litigiousness is a serious one, likely to result in undue prejudice against the party charged, unless the previous claims made by the party are shown to have been fraudulent." Id. at 380-81 (quoting Outley v. City of New York, 387 F.2d 587, 592 (2d Cir. 1988)). The Batiste-Davis Court found that "[t]he probative value of the lawsuit was minimal as Lincare presented evidence of only one suit, which was six years old." Id. at 381.

Turning to the facts in the instant action, Defendants seek to offer evidence that Lenius filed a similar lawsuit in 1997, approximately seven years prior to her initial complaints in the instant action. I believe the facts here are virtually indistinguishable from those in Batiste-Davis. Defendants present evidence of only one prior lawsuit, which was filed approximately seven years earlier. Assuming evidence of the prior lawsuit is relevant, similar, and close enough in time, its probative value is outweighed by its prejudicial effect. There is no evidence that the earlier lawsuit was fraudulently filed, and allowing its admission in the liability phase would require a "mini-trial" on that collateral issue.

I reach a different conclusion, however, regarding the admission of Lenius' prior testimony during the damage phase. In this case, Lenius claims severe emotional distress resulting from John Deere's alleged discrimination. In the earlier case, Lenius also claimed that she was forced to seek psychological and medical treatment as a result of sex and age discrimination. As I understand it, Lenius was deposed in the earlier lawsuit and testified regarding her allegations and her emotional distress. I believe that evidence is admissible on Lenius' present claim that she sustained damages as a result of John Deere's alleged wrongdoing. At the instant hearing, Plaintiffs' counsel agreed that Lenius' prior testimony regarding her treatment of similar diagnoses or complaints would be admissible, but only if Lenius first denied making those allegations while testifying at the instant trial.

The Court concludes that evidence regarding Lenius' prior discrimination lawsuit is inadmissible during the liability phase of the trial. During the damages phase, however, Defendants will be permitted to offer evidence regarding both the substance of the earlier lawsuit and the complaints of damage made by Lenius at that time. The Court withholds ruling on whether the lawsuit documents are themselves admissible until after it hears Lenius' testimony on that subject. If Lenius admits the prior suit, including the nature of the allegations, then it may not be necessary to introduce the ICRC complaint or the state court petition.

4. Other Legal Actions. While the record is imprecise, Lenius was apparently injured in a car accident in 2008. At the time of hearing, her attorney referred to "a prior personal injury lawsuit involving Ms. Lenius and her father, " but it is unclear to the Court whether that refers to the 2008 car accident or some other incident. According to Defendants' counsel, Lenius was arrested in 2001 and charged with assaulting her husband. Her attorney advised the Court, however, that Lenius was found not guilty of that charge. The motion in limine is also apparently intended to refer to a worker's compensation claim filed by Forster following the events which give rise to the instant action, which was subsequently dismissed. Plaintiffs ask that Defendants be prohibited from offering any evidence or argument regarding these other claims.

Defendants apparently concede that evidence regarding Lenius' lawsuit following the motor vehicle accident, and the criminal charge of domestic assault, are inadmissible during the liability phase of the trial. Defendants argue, however, that evidence regarding Lenius' prior injuries is relevant to her claim for damages, and evidence regarding the domestic abuse charge is relevant to her claim that her relationship with her husband has been damaged by Deere's wrongdoing.

The Court concludes that evidence regarding Lenius' injuries sustained in a 2008 car accident may be admitted in the damage phase, without reference to the fact that she subsequently filed a lawsuit seeking damages. That is, Defendants may offer evidence regarding the accident and her alleged injuries. Defendants may not offer evidence regarding the resulting litigation, however, without first presenting the proposed evidence outside the presence of the jury, and convincing the Court that its probative value outweighs its prejudicial effect. Similarly, Defendants may offer evidence regarding Lenius' relationship with her husband. They may not offer evidence regarding the criminal charge - particularly since Lenius was acquitted - without first seeking further authorization from the Court.

It is unclear to the Court what evidence may be available regarding Forster's worker's compensation claim, and what evidence Defendants may seek to introduce at trial. The Court reserves ruling on the issue of whether evidence regarding Forster's worker's compensation claim is admissible in the damages phase. Defendants are instructed not to offer any evidence in this regard without obtaining further authorization from the Court.

5. Disparate Impact Evidence. The parties apparently agree that this is not a "disparate impact" case. That is, Plaintiffs are not alleging that the implementation of GJE generally had a disparate impact on older women, despite its benign purpose. Instead, Plaintiffs assert that Defendants intentionally manipulated the GJE process in order to discriminate against the Plaintiffs.

Defendants do not intend to offer any evidence regarding the impact which implementation of GJE had on the class of older women generally. However, Defendants seek to offer evidence regarding the overall impact of GJE on the employees' pay grades. It is the Court's understanding that approximately 70% of Deere's employees stayed at the same pay grade, 20% were placed at a higher pay grade, and 10% per placed at a lower pay grade.[3] The Court believes that evidence regarding the overall effect of GJE on pay grades is relevant and admissible. It is the Court's understanding, however, that Defendants will not attempt to offer any evidence regarding GJE's impact on certain identified groups, such as gender or age.

In their resistance to Plaintiffs' motion in limine, Defendants alert the Court that not only will they present evidence regarding the number of Deere employees impacted by GJE, they may also present evidence of "the number of discrimination claims asserted in the wake of GJE."[4] That issue was not specifically addressed at the time of hearing, but the Court believes that evidence regarding "a lack of lawsuits" is not relevant to the claims being asserted by Plaintiffs here. That is, Plaintiffs do not assert that the GJE process was inherently discriminatory, but instead assert it was unlawfully manipulated by Defendants in this case to discriminate on the basis of age and sex. The Court concludes that evidence regarding "a lack of lawsuits" is not probative, would confuse the jury, and is inadmissible.

6. "Same Decision" Defense. Next, Plaintiffs ask the Court to prohibit Defendants from offering "[e]vidence that it would have taken some adverse action against Plaintiffs despite discrimination." Plaintiffs reason that because they are not pursuing a "mixed motive" case, and because Defendants have offered no evidence under a "same decision" defense, it would be "irrelevant and unduly prejudicial to Plaintiffs for Defendants to present such evidence." In response, Defendants argue this is not an evidentiary issue, but rather involves the manner in which the case will be submitted to the jury.

It is unclear to the Court what evidence Plaintiffs are attempting to exclude. Plaintiffs claim that their failure to be mapped to paygrade 7 when GJE was implemented was the result of age and sex discrimination. To rebut that allegation, Defendants intend to offer evidence regarding the manner in which GJE decisions were made. This does not appear to be a mixed motive case, nor does it appear that Defendants are asserting a same decision defense. Defendants are not precluded from offering evidence regarding how and why the decision was made to map Plaintiffs to paygrade 6 during the GJE process.

7. EEOC Investigation. Unfortunately, for all parties, these cases pended before the EEOC for an inordinate period of time. Both Plaintiffs filed claims with the EEOC in October 2004. The EEOC did not issue a "Determination" until June 2011, and issued right-to-sue letters in August 2012. At the time of hearing, both counsel seemed to agree that the jury must be told something about the extraordinary delay between the alleged discriminatory action and the time of trial.

In their motion in limine, Plaintiffs ask that Defendants be precluded from offering "[a]ny evidence that the length of the EEOC investigation was the fault' of any party in this matter or that any party contributed to any alleged delay in bringing this lawsuit." At the hearing, however, Plaintiffs' counsel advised the Court that Plaintiffs believed the jury should be "informed that the EEOC was involved" and that "it was a seven-year investigation." Plaintiffs also intend to offer the Determination letter "in order to give the jury the entire context as to what happened." Defendants' counsel urged the Court to tell the jury "absolutely nothing" about the EEOC. Defendants concede, however, that the jury must be told something about the undue delay.

Questions concerning the admission or exclusion of EEOC determinations are left "to the sound discretion of the trial court." White v. Honeywell, Inc., 141 F.3d 1270, 1277 (8th Cir. 1998). In the exercise of its discretion, the Court must "ensure that unfair prejudice does not result from a conclusion based on a cursory EEOC review of the very facts examined in depth at trial." Id. When the evidence introduced at trial and the evidence underlying the EEOC decision is the same, the EEOC's findings "are minimally relevant and would amount to admitting the opinion of an expert witness as to what conclusions the jury should draw, even though the jury had the opportunity and the ability to draw its own conclusions.'" Jones v. Cargill, Inc., 490 F.Supp.2d 989, 993 (N.D. Iowa 2007) (quoting Johnson v. Yellow Freight Sys., Inc., 734 F.2d 1304, 1309 (8th Cir. 1984)). Here, the evidence provided to the jury will undoubtedly be more detailed than that obtained by the EEOC investigator. Under these circumstances, the conclusions reached by the EEOC have minimal relevance, if any.

The Court concludes that evidence regarding the submission of a claim to the EEOC, the EEOC's subsequent investigation, and the EEOC's determination are not probative to the issues which will be submitted to the jury. Accordingly, at the beginning of the liability phase, I will instruct the jury that the delay between the events underlying Plaintiffs' claims and the trial was for reasons unrelated to the issues that they will be required to decide. I will tell the jury that they should not speculate as to the reason for the delay, should not assess any fault to either party for the delay, ...


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