Biden-nominated Judge Candace Jackson-Akiwumi cast the deciding vote that overturned a Trump district judge in an age discrimination case. The Seventh Circuit panel held that a worker who provided evidence that he was continually harassed because of his age should have the chance to take his case to a jury. Trump judge Michael Brennan dissented and would have upheld the ruling throwing out the worker’s claim, harming workers’ rights. The June 2022 decision was in Stamey v Forest River. Inc.
What happened to the worker on the job?
Sam Stamey worked at installing wiring in cargo trailers for Forest River, Inc., beginning in 2007. He had a good work record with no problems for almost ten years. After he turned 61 in 2017, however, some other employees undertook a “relentless and ruthless campaign of age-based harassment” against him. He estimated that around two dozen employees took part, with no effective action by management despite numerous complaints.
Specifically, Stamey explained that verbal harassment escalated to the point that he “caught old age insults practically every morning” as he came to work, “during breaks,” whenever he “walked into other parts of the plant,” and when he “left for the day.” For example, employees called him “Walmart greeter”, “old man,” and “grandma.” They derisively asked “You still alive?” and “When the f— you retiring?” Stamey estimated he received around 1000 insults in 2017-2018. This included comments like “Looks like your dentures are about to fall out.”
The harassment also included acts that interfered with Stamey’s work. The offending coworkers “repeatedly defaced his workstation” by suchmisconduct as “writing profanity on his tool cabinet.” Other examples included “zip tying his tools together,” taping or gluing “his tool cabinet shut,” driving “screws into the wheels of his wire cart, immobilizing it,” and cutting “the power cord to his new electric coffee maker in several places,” dangerously “exposing its wiring.”
Stamey repeatedly complained about this harassment to his supervisor and to HR. His first supervisor did help stop the harassment for a short time in 2017. That supervisor died, however, and no one else took any effective action. One complained that Stamey “shouldn’t have gone over his head” to HR. Stamey filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. The corporation claimed that “no facts” supported his claims.
Stamey explained that he “suffered emotionally and physically” because of the harassment. This included “trouble eating and sleeping,” feeling “depressed and humiliated,” and finding “his hands shaking while at home.” One day, a supervisor in another department “taunted” him in front of his coworkers, saying “Damn, Sam, you still kicking? You’ve got one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel.” Stamey resigned that day, and filed a second charge with the EOC, contending that he was the victim of constructive discharge.
What happened in the trial court?
Stamey filed suit against Forrest River in federal court. He contended that the corporation had effectively forced him to resign and thus constructively discharged him since it failed to take effective action concerning the harassment, in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). The case was assigned to Judge Damon Leichty, who former President Trump had nominated to the bench.
After discovery, Trump judge Leichty granted summary judgment to the corporation and dismissed Stamey’s case without a trial. Leichty claimed that Stamey “could not show” that his working conditions “were so intolerable that a reasonable person would have been compelled to resign.” He also ruled that Stamey “acted unreasonably” in concluding that “management would not help him.” Stamey appealed to the Seventh Circuit.
What happened on appeal?
In a 2-1 decision with Biden judge Jackson-Akiwumi providing the deciding vote, the Seventh Circuit reversed. All three judges agreed that to prove constructive discharge, a worker like Stamey must show that he suffered “working conditions so intolerable that a reasonable person would have felt compelled to resign” and that seeking redress from the employer “would be futile.” As the majority explained, however, these are largely factual issues “up to the jury” to resolve. “We owe no deference” to the lower court’s view of the facts, the majority went on. Instead, they made clear, Stamey has the right to present his case to a jury if he has “identified genuine disputes over facts material” to his case.
Based on this standard and the record below, the majority concluded that Stamey should prevail on appeal. “A jury could find,” the majority ruled, that Stamey’s harassment “was egregious enough to meet the high threshold of constructive discharge.” A “rational jury could also conclude that a reasonable person” would have “believe[d] it futile” to continue seeking redress from the corporation. According to the majority, which included Judge Jackson-Akiwumi and Trump judge Michael Scudder, Stamey and workers like him should have a chance to prover their case to a jury. Trump judge Brennan dissented and would have upheld the lower court.
Why are this case and Judge Jackson-Akiwumi’s vote important?
Judge Jackson-Akiwumi provided the deciding vote that gave Sam Stamey the right to take his age discrimination case to a jury. But the case has broader implications as well.
As the court recognized, the Seventh Circuit had never previously recognized that a worker could bring a constructive discharge claim in an age discrimination case. In that circuit, which covers Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, the case established an important precedent that will help protect all older workers’ rights. Without Jackson-Akiwumi’s deciding vote, that would not have happened. It provides a clear example of the importance of confirming fair-minded Biden nominees like her to our federal courts.