Friday, December 7, 2018

Former Park District Employee Reinstated by Court After Finding of National Origin Discrimination

Plaintiff, Lydia Vega, was a Chicago Park District Parks and Recreation Supervisor in 2011 when the Park District launched an investigation that she was falsifying her timesheets after receiving an anonymous tip to that effect. The investigation took an unprecedented five months and was conducted by all of the HR investigators hired to conduct these types of inquiries. A report was ultimately issued; finding that although the plaintiff’s time entries were inaccurate, it didn’t find that she engaged in any other misconduct. Despite plaintiff’s voluminous documentation refuting the report’s findings, she was discharged for timesheet falsification. She filed suit claiming national origin discrimination and retaliation.

At trial, a senior investigator acknowledged that not only was the investigation of plaintiff remarkably long, but that she was the only employee who was discharged just for timesheet falsification without a theft of time or any other allegation. He also acknowledged that a Caucasian park supervisor accused of leaving early without signing out was treated differently.

The jury found in favor of the plaintiff on her national origin discrimination claim. In addition to a monetary award, the Park District was ordered to reinstate plaintiff despite the Park District’s arguments that some employees resented the plaintiff for bringing suit and that to reinstate her would require some other park supervisor to lose their position in order to make room for plaintiff’s return. The court held that to refuse plaintiff’s request for reinstatement because some employees resented that she sued and prevailed in a lawsuit against the Park District would essentially punish plaintiff for “succeeding in standing up for her own rights.” Additionally, the court noted that the Park District had a number of park supervisor positions and it could easily reinstate plaintiff to the next available position, thereby avoiding harming any other employees in the process.

While it is unusual for discharged employees to actually prefer reinstatement over an additional monetary award in discrimination cases, some plaintiffs, like Ms. Vega, recognize that the salary and pension participation of their former position exceeds any other job they might obtain. The courts have wide discretion to fashion awards for prevailing plaintiffs to suit the individual case. Employers face a special challenge when a formerly discharged employee is returned to the workplace against the employer’s wishes. It is important in those instances to ensure that the reinstated employee is treated the same as others and not subject to a hostile work environment by others who resent the reinstatement.