Friday, December 27, 2013

Court of Appeal: Wages Earned at "Inferior" Job Do Not Count as "Mitigation" of Damages

Employee was a maintenance planner earning  $65,699 per year.  His employer lays him off. 
He moves to another town to be closer to his wife's job.  Employee finds new employment, but 2-3 hours from his new location.  So, he pays $500 per month for a room an hour away from the new job and he saees his family on days off. The new position is maintenance supervisor, paying $69,300 per year.  In all, employee was out of work 8 months.

Employee sues for discrimination, wrongful termination, etc.  He wins his case.  How much is the lost wages? Yes, about $44,000, which is about 8 months' salary.  I know this because that's how much the employee's lawyer asked for during closing argument.  

But the jury awarded $198,000 in lost wages, about 3 years' pay.  That happened to be equivalent to his prior annual salary from the termination date until the trial. 

The employer challenged the verdict on appeal, arguing that the jury did not take into account the employee's mitigation efforts and his actual earned wages.  

The court of appeal decided that the jury had the right to conclude that the longer commute rendered the replacement job "inferior," and that wages earned from an "inferior" job need not be counted against lost wages.
The evidence in the instant case reflects Villacorta’s job at National was located two to three hours away from the home where his family resided. As a result, Villacorta rented a room Lancaster, which was one hour away from National’s plant in Lebec. Villacorta could not find a closer rental because Lebec was “kind of a remote area.” As a result, Villacorta was only able to see his family on weekends. Villacorta’s family consisted of his wife and two daughters, who were seven and 11 years old at the time of trial. Based upon the foregoing evidence, a jury could reasonably conclude the job at National was inferior to the job at Cemex because of the burden placed on Villacorta by the location of the job. The burden included not seeing his family during workdays and having to pay for a second residence. Since the jury could reasonably conclude the National job was inferior, it was reasonable for the jury to not use Villacorta’s National wages to mitigate the Cemex losses.
This decision could lead to a lot of litigation over the quality of replacement employment.  In this case, the employee secured a new job for more money than he was earning at his old job.  Yes, it was far from his home. But he voluntarily moved his home to a remote location, making it more difficult to find replacement employment near his home.  Additionally, the court simply accepted the premise that a job that pays more, and that involves comparable work in a comparable industry still is inferior, but only because of a longer commute.  

It seems like the court is expanding plaintiffs' opportunity to recover damages for "back pay" when they did not actually suffer a financial loss. What is the role of damages for economic loss?  Is it to make a plaintiff "whole?" Or is it to provide a plaintiff with more money than he would have earned if he had stayed employed with the employer that fired him?  

This case is Villacorta v. Cemex Cement, Inc. and the opinion is here.