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Dawson v. Florida Department of Transportation

United States District Court, N.D. Florida, Tallahassee Division

April 19, 2018

JAMES DAWSON, Plaintiff,



         A jury found that the defendant state agency suspended and then fired the plaintiff because of his race. The defendant has moved for judgment as a matter of law, for a new trial, or to remit the award of lost wages. This order remits the award of lost wages to account for the plaintiff's earnings from other employment after the firing. The order denies the remainder of the motion. The order requires the defendant to reinstate the plaintiff on equitable conditions.

         On a motion for judgment as a matter of law, disputes in the evidence must be resolved, and all reasonable inferences must be drawn, in favor of the nonmoving party. The motion must be denied if a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. See, e.g., Commodores Entm't Corp. v. McClary, 879 F.3d 1114, 1130 (11th Cir. 2017). On a motion for a new trial, in contrast, the court may consider the weight of the evidence. But new trials are disfavored; a court should grant a new trial only if “the verdict is against the clear weight of the evidence or will result in a miscarriage of justice.” McGinnis v. Am. Home Mortg. Servicing, Inc., 817 F.3d 1241, 1254 (11th Cir. 2016).


         The plaintiff James Dawson climbed the ranks in the Florida Department of Transportation through a 25-year career. He became a “white-shirt supervisor” in a regional office, responsible for a crew that repaired roads and provided attendant services. He was, by all accounts, good at his job, or at least knowledgeable about road repair and about how to perform the tasks entrusted to his crew.

         Two problems arose. First, there was racial antagonism in the regional office. Second, there was a lack of civility and cooperation in the office, especially between Mr. Dawson's crew and at least one other crew, perhaps related to the racial antagonism, perhaps not. Different combinations of managers suspended and, about a week later, terminated Mr. Dawson, giving different explanations.

         The Department says the termination was a response to the lack of civility and cooperation in the office. But only Mr. Dawson was terminated; the manager of the other crew was not. Mr. Dawson says the reason for the different treatment was race: Mr. Dawson is African American; the other manager is white. The Department says the treatment had nothing to do with race-that Mr. Dawson was terminated because he was the cause of the problem.

         In sorting this out, the jury was entitled to consider other circumstances. Mr. Dawson suffered curious treatment-perhaps just the result of poor management, but perhaps caused by racial bias. Thus, for example, he arranged to acquire concrete that was needed to repair an on-ramp to an interstate highway before it collapsed. He did this while the region's warehouse supervisor-the person who ordinarily did the ordering-was unavailable. The concrete was needed; Mr. Dawson acquired it from the same vendor at the same price as the warehouse supervisor would have done had she been available; and Mr. Dawson had routinely followed this same procedure on other occasions without objection. But this time Mr. Dawson was treated as a villain. This occurred shortly before Mr. Dawson's suspension and termination.

         Management solicited statements from employees criticizing Mr. Dawson's performance. But some African American employees were not asked for a statement. Testimony about the manner in which the statements were solicited was plainly false in some respects-false in sufficient respects to create a “suspicion of mendacity.” St. Mary's Honor Center v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 511 (1993). Management used the statements as the primary basis for Mr. Dawson's termination.

         The jury answered interrogatories explicitly finding that race was a motivating factor in Mr. Dawson's suspension and termination and that he would not have been suspended or terminated if race had not been considered. The evidence of this was less than overwhelming; the jury could also have found that Mr. Dawson was suspended and terminated for the legitimate reasons the Department proffered. This was, in short, a jury question. The Department is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law.


         This was not a perfect trial-few are. But it was a fair trial. There is no reason to believe a new trial would produce a different result.

         The Department complains of evidentiary rulings, but the rulings were correct-the same rulings would be made again in a new trial. The Department also complains of an ambiguous and fleeting remark in Mr. Dawson's attorney's closing argument. The attorney said the jury would not be asked to decide whether Mr. Dawson should get his job back-“that's not part of this process.” The Department made no contemporaneous objection. This remark was an inconsequential part of the trial; it did not affect the verdict.

         In sum, the issues were close, and the losing side is dissatisfied, as the losing side usually is. As a matter of ...

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