Today, the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Maine and other New England states, affirmed a Massachusetts trial court’s decision to hold HEI Hospitality liable for unlawfully retaliating against its former senior vice-president. HEI fired the former senior vice-president, Lawrence Trainor, a few hours after he complained that it was discriminating against him because of his age (he was in his 60’s at the time). Under federal and Massachusetts law, it is not only illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee because of his age; it is also illegal to retaliate against an employee who complains of age discrimination–even if no age discrimination occurred. That is exactly what the jury found in this case. It found that HEI did not discriminate against Trainor because of his age but that it did retaliate against him for opposing what he thought constituted age discrimination.
The First Circuit’s opinion also contains important holdings on the issues of front pay, attorney fees, and damages for emotional distress. With respect to front pay, the First Circuit held that an award of liquidated damages, designed to punish an employer for its unlawful retaliation, does not foreclose an award of front pay. This is because front pay is designed to compensate the victim of retaliation for wages that he would have earned in the future had the employer not violated his rights–not to punish the employer.
With respect to attorney fees, when a plaintiff in an employment discrimination case prevails at trial, the employer is typically required to pay the plaintiff’s reasonable attorney fees. HEI argued that the fees in this case should be reduced because Trainor only prevailed on his retaliation claim, not his age discrimination claim. The trial court and the First Circuit disagreed with HEI because the age discrimination and retaliation claims were so intertwined that all of the work that Trainor’s attorney performed on the case was necessary for both claims.
Trainor did not prevail in every respect at the First Circuit, however. The First Circuit reduced the amount of money the trial court awarded Trainor for emotional distress from $500,000 to $200,000. This reduction came after the trial court had already reduced the jury’s verdict from $1,000,000 to $500,000. In reaching this decision, the First Circuit found it significant that Trainor did not require any medical care or counseling for the emotional distress he suffered. If Trainor decides to accept this reduction, instead of exercising his option to a new trial on damages, his total award will be $200,000 in emotional distress damages, plus $500,000 in back pay, plus $750,000 in front pay, plus liquidated damages in an amount equal to all of these dollar amounts combined, plus attorney fees. Additionally, HEI must permit Trainor to participate and vest in three HEI sponsored investment funds. All in all, as the First Circuit held, this was a “smashing success” for Trainor.