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Palm Beach County School Board v. Wright

Florida Court of Appeals, Fourth District

April 5, 2017

PALM BEACH COUNTY SCHOOL BOARD, Appellant,
v.
LEHA ("BONNIE") WRIGHT, Appellee.

         Not final until disposition of timely filed motion for rehearing.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit, Palm Beach County; Lisa S. Small, Judge; L.T. Case No. 502010CA030544XXXXMB.

          JulieAnn Rico, Office of General Counsel, and Jean Marie Middleton and Sean Fahey, West Palm Beach, for appellant.

          Isidro M. Garcia of Garcia Law Firm, P.A., West Palm Beach, for appellee.

         EN BANC

          May, J.

         The Palm Beach County School Board appeals an adverse judgment on a retaliation claim. It argues the trial court erred in its instruction to the jury on causation. We agree and reverse. Because this requires us to adopt a new standard on causation in line with the United States Supreme Court's decision in University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, 133 S.Ct. 2517 (2013), and recede from our prior decision in Guess v. City of Miramar, 889 So.2d 840 (Fla. 4th DCA 2004), we issue this opinion en banc.

         The plaintiff is of Vietnamese origin and worked in the Information Technology Department for over ten years under a series of annual contracts. She experienced hostile encounters with her supervisor, who criticized her accent and complained that she could not understand the plaintiff. This caused the plaintiff to email her supervisor and the Board of Directors about what she perceived as a hostile work environment.

          The plaintiff never received a response from either her supervisor or the school board. But, soon thereafter she received a letter notifying her that her contract would not be renewed for the next school year. She was ordered not to report to work without explanation.

         The plaintiff ultimately filed a Verified Second Amended Complaint, alleging three counts. The first count alleged three Florida Civil Rights Act [FCRA] violations for discrimination, a hostile work environment, and harassment, based on race and national origin. Count two alleged a FCRA violation for retaliation. Count three alleged a violation of the Florida Public Sector Whistleblower Act.

         During the charge conference, the trial court ruled that the Eleventh Circuit Civil Pattern Jury Instructions (Civil Cases) and federal case law would be used to instruct the jury on the claim of race and national origin discrimination. There was no objection to this ruling. The school board then proposed the court follow the Eleventh Circuit Civil Pattern Jury Instruction 4.22 for the retaliation claim.

         The plaintiff objected and asked the court to rely on Carter v. Health Management Assoc., 989 So.2d 1258 (Fla. 2d DCA 2008) and Guess to charge the jury on the retaliation claim. The court ruled that the Carter language of "not wholly or completely unrelated" together with the language from Eleventh Circuit Civil Jury Instruction 4.21, Retaliation 42 U.S.C. § 1981, would be given.

         At trial, the court granted the school board's motion for directed verdict on the hostile environment and harassment claims in count one and the count three whistleblower claim. This left the discrimination based on race and national orign claim in count one and the count two retaliation claim for the jury's determination.

         The jury returned a verdict for the school board on the discrimination claim, but in favor of the plaintiff on the retaliation claim. The court entered ...


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