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Lampkins v. Mitra QSR KNE, LLC

United States District Court, D. Delaware

June 4, 2019

AUTUMN LAMPIONS, Plaintiff,
v.
MITRA QSR KNE, LLC, Defendant.

          Patrick C. Gallagher, Raeann Warner, JACOBS & CRUMPLAR, P.A., Wilmington, Delaware Counsel for Plaintiff

          Richard A. Barkasy, Daniel M. Pereira, SCHNADER, HARRISON, SEGAL & LEWIS LLP, Wilmington, Delaware; Jo Bennett, Samantha Banks, SCHNADER, HARRISON, SEGAL & LEWIS LLP, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Counsel for Defendant

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          COLM F. CONNOLLY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         The Court held a five-day jury trial in this employment discrimination case filed by Plaintiff Autumn Lampkins against Defendant Mitra QSR KNE, LLC. The jury found that Mitra unlawfully discriminated against Lampkins on the basis of her sex by demoting her and cutting her hours because she was lactating.[1] The jury also found that (1) Mitra unlawfully subjected Lampkins to a hostile work environment because she was lactating and (2) Mitra's hostile work environment resulted in Lampkins' demotion, reduction in work hours, and constructive discharge. The jury awarded Lampkins $25, 000 in compensatory damages and $1, 500, 000 in punitive damages.

         Pending before me is Mitra's renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP) and for a new trial under FRCP 59(a). D.I. 168. Mitra seeks by its motion entry of a judgment in its favor on Lampkins' hostile work environment and punitive damages claims or, in the alternative, a new trial on those claims. Mitra further seeks a new trial on Lampkins' disparate treatment claims. Finally, Mitra requests that in the event I deny its requests for judgment as a matter of law and a new trial, 1 reduce the jury's punitive damages award "to comport with constitutional limits and Title VII's statutory damages cap." Id. at 2.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Lampkins alleged three counts in the operative complaint (her First Amended Complaint): sex discrimination (i.e., disparate treatment[2]) (Count I) and creating and/or allowing a hostile work environment (Count II) in violation of Title VII, and failure to provide accommodations and opportunities to express breast milk (Count III) in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Acts (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. § 2O7(r). Before trial, I granted in part Mitra's summary judgment motion and dismissed the FLSA count. See D.I. 101.

         Lampkins presented at trial two theories of disparate treatment liability and eight theories of hostile work environment liability. Specifically, Lampkins argued that (1) Mitra unlawfully discriminated against her by demoting her; (2) Mitra unlawfully discriminated against her by reducing her work hours; (3) her supervisors created and subjected her to a hostile work environment; (4) her coworkers created and subjected her to a hostile work environment; (5) a hostile work environment created by her supervisors resulted in her demotion; (6) a hostile work environment created by her coworkers resulted in her demotion; (7) a hostile work environment created by her supervisors resulted in a reduction in her work hours; (8) a hostile work environment created by her coworkers resulted in a reduction in her work hours; (9) a hostile work environment created by her supervisors resulted in her constructive discharge; and (10) a hostile work environment created by her coworkers resulted in her constructive discharge.

         At Lampkins' insistence, I instructed the jury (albeit reluctantly) on all ten of these theories.[3] The verdict sheet agreed to by the parties did not distinguish between supervisor and coworker liability, thus reducing the claims adjudicated by the jury to six in number (i.e., combining theories (3) with (4), (5) with (6), (7) with (8), and (9) with (10)). The jury found in Lampkins' favor on all six claims.

         In light of the circumstances which gave rise to Lampkins' claims, one would have expected the case to be simple and straightforward. Lampkins worked for Mitra less than five months. Her claims implicate the conduct of only two supervisors and a half dozen coworkers in two small fast food restaurants. The demotion and cut in hours about which she complains resulted from a single episode-Mitra's decision in the seventh week of Lampkins' employment to transfer her to a smaller store. The demotion resulted in a cut in her hourly pay from $10.50 to $10.00.

         The case, however, has proved to be anything but simple and straightforward, principally because throughout the litigation Lampkins conflated her disparate treatment and hostile work environment Title VII claims with each other and also with her FLSA claim. For its part, Mitra is not without blame, as it acceded in large part to Lampkins' conflation of theories until it was too late and never (including in its post-trial briefing) brought to the Court's attention case law from this District (and other courts) that, had the Court been aware of it, would have simplified the case long ago.[4] But putting aside the question of fault for creating the situation, I am convinced that the conflation of claims and theories of liability undoubtedly confused the jury, unfairly prejudiced Mitra, and, because Mitra is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on Lampkins' hostile work environment claims, necessitates a new trial.

         II. LEGAL STANDARDS

         A. Judgment as A Matter of Law

         "If the court does not grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law made under Rule 50(a) ... the movant may file a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law and may include an alternative or joint request for a new trial under Rule 59." Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b). Upon a Rule 50(b) motion, a jury verdict should be overturned "only if, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmovant and giving it the advantage of every fair and reasonable inference, there is insufficient evidence from which a jury reasonably could find liability." Fultz v. Dunn, 165 F.3d 215, 218 (3d Cir. 1998) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         B. New Trial

         Rule 59(a) permits a district court judge, "on motion," to grant a new trial "for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court." A new trial may be granted when the verdict is contrary to the evidence, where a miscarriage of justice would result if the jury's verdict were to stand, or when the court believes the verdict results from confusion. Brown v. Nutrition Mgmt. Servs. Co., 370 Fed.Appx. 267, 270 (3d Cir. 2010); see also Nissho- Iwai Co. v. Occidental Crude Sales, Inc., 729 F.2d 1530, 1538 (5th Cir. 1984) ("A trial judge may order a new trial if he suspects that the jury verdict reflects confusion.").

         III. EVIDENCE ADDUCED AT TRIAL

         The relevant evidence adduced at trial, viewed in the light most favorable to Lampkins, established the following.

         A. Lampkins Begins Work and Trains at Mitra's Camden Store

         Mitra hired Lampkins in December 2014 to work as an Assistant Manager at a restaurant it owned in Camden, Delaware. The Camden store was a "dual brand store" that sold both KFC and Taco Bell food products.

         Lampkins started work at the Camden store on December 29, 2014 as a trainee in Mitra's eight-week training program. She received positive and negative reviews during her training. She was paid at an hourly rate of $10.50. PI. Ex. 6 at 1.

         The Camden store had only two areas that were walled off within the store: the bathrooms and an office. The office housed the store's safe and therefore, for security reasons, had windows and a security camera that fed a monitor which could be viewed by Mitra's security personnel in Texas.

         Lampkins breastfed her newly-born baby throughout her tenure with Mitra and she therefore needed to use a breast pump during work hours. For her first two weeks at Mitra, Lampkins breast-pumped in the women's bathroom. When a customer complained that Lampkins was tying up the bathroom, a supervisor directed Lampkins to breast-pump in the office.

         Lampkins was understandably unhappy about having to breast-pump in the office. Mitra refused her request to cover the security camera lens, and thus she "fe[lt] uncomfortable because there's people that I don't even know that are able to essentially watch me doing something very private." Tr. 164:5-7. Her supervisor's recommendation that Lampkins avoid the camera lens by "fac[ing] the other way" did not alleviate Lampkins' concerns, as "fac[ing] the other way" enabled coworkers to see Lampkins breast-pump through the office's windows. Tr. 164:14-21.

         On one occasion in early or mid-January 2015, while Lampkins was breast-pumping, a male coworker named Bo entered the office to check the store's computer for operational statistics. Tr. 226:21-227:5. According to Lampkins, Bo spent a "minute or two" on the computer, told Lampkins that she shouldn't breast-pump at work, and left the office. Tr. 226:6-19. Lampkins complained to a supervisor about Bo's walking in on her while she breast-pumped and his comment about her breast-pumping at work. Tr. 227:6-7. The supervisor later told Lampkins that she had spoken to Bo about these matters. Lampkins testified that Bo never spoke to Lampkins after Lampkins complained to her supervisor and that Bo's silence was "really awkward and a little bit hostile." Tr. 165:19-23.

         On another occasion at the Camden store, a male coworker named Reese "peaked in [the office window while Lampkins breast-pumped] and made like little squeezing gestures with his hands and kind of laughing, making a joke about it to others." Tr. 166:8-10. After Lampkins complained to a supervisor about Reese's conduct, the supervisor "brought in like a poster board to cover the window." Tr. 166:11-12. According to Lampkins, the poster board "solved half of the problem . .., but we still ha[d] the major concern of the camera being in there and they wouldn't turn that off." Tr. 166:18-20.

         When asked by her counsel at trial if "anyone else c[a]me into the office while you were pumping" at the Camden store, Lampkins testified that "[t]he other assistant managers occasionally would need to or they would run in really fast and Joy [the Camden store's general manager] would come in." Tr. 166:21-24. When asked "how did that make you feel?" Lampkins testified: "I was a little bit more comfortable with them just because they were females and being like I've changed in locker rooms in front of females, [and] it's easier to be comfortable around somebody of your own sex against a male walking in." Tr. 166:25-167:5.

         On February 8, 2015, at the beginning of Lampkins' seventh week in the training program, her training coach, Emily Martin, sent an email with the subject line "Urgent HR issues in Delaware" to Mitra's Director of Human Resources, Nancy Jacobi. Among the various issues identified in the email, one concerned Lampkins: "External AUM trainee comes out of training next week and I need to know if when she has to pump breast milk several times while at work should she be on or off the clock?" PL Ex. 4 at 3. Jacobi responded to Martin's email in relevant part:

On the young lady that needs to breast pump, not only are we required to accommodate this, but we would apply the rules just as we do when someone takes more than 30 minutes. If it is under 30 minutes, we would consider this a paid break. If more than 30 minutes is required, we would require the employee to clock out and clock back in. Out of curiosity, where is this person going to be doing this? In the office or the ladies room? Do we have outlets available for use in these places?

Id. at 1. In reply to Jacobi's email, Martin wrote: "Office-it has a door and outlets[.] [L]adies room is a single stall so it would tie up the restroom for too long." Id.

         At some point in late January or early February 2015, Lampkins was informed by Martin and Joy that Lampkins was being demoted to the position of shift manager and transferred to a KFC-only (i.e., single brand) restaurant owned by Mitra in Dover, Delaware. According to Lampkins, "the first words out of [Martin's] mouth was, [']we're going to demote you because you're breastfeeding. It will be easier for you to run a single brand store and you'll have more time to step away, and once you're done nursing, you can go back into the assistant manager position that you originally were hired for.'" Tr. 169:9-14. Lampkins testified that the transfer to Dover "c[a]me with a pay cut and reduced hours, but [that Martin] assured [her] it was all for [her] own benefit, and that... once [Lampkins] was done [at Dover], that [Mitra] would not have any problems bringing [her] back into the assistant manager position [at Camden]." Tr. 170:1-6. Lampkins was disappointed by the transfer and demotion, but she did not complain to Mitra's human resources department because she needed the job and because "I felt like I was already being reprimanded for nursing and I didn't want them to get just get rid of me altogether." Tr. 170:17-24.

         B. Lampkins Moves to Mitra's Dover Store

         Lampkins completed her training at the Camden store in the second week of February 2015. She began working as a shift manager at the Dover store on February 18, 2015. Her hourly rate was $10.00. PI. Ex. 6 at 4.

         Lampkins' typical shift at the Dover store began at 4:00 p.m. and ended at 11:OO p.m. Tr. 172:4-5. She was charged with supervising six part-time employees, whom she referred to as her "team members." Tr. 172:6-9. Lampkins testified that her team members did not like the fact that she took breaks to breast-pump:

Q. How would you let your team members know that you were going to take a break and express breast milk?
A. I would tell them. I would give them any direction or any duties I wanted them to get done while I was on my break and then I would tell them, okay. ["]l'rn going to go in the office now. I will be done in about 15 minutes["] and I would just go.
Q. So tell the jury what type of problem did you encounter, if any, with regard to expressing breast milk while at the Dover store?
A. The team members didn't want me to go. They would take attitudes with me. They would tell me that if I went to the [back] or to take a break, that they were going to leave. That they would just abandon their shift[s]. Just constant attitudes, like it was an inconvenience for me to get a break.
Q. And who specifically threatened to leave the store?
A. Destiny told me that if I went into the office, she was going to leave.
Q. Did you ever complain to Lisa [Lampkins' supervisor at the Dover store] about your team members' attitudes ... ?
A. I brought it up to Lisa more times than I could count and she just - she brushed off my concerns. She gave them justifications for why they were behaving that way. She just never stood behind me as a manager. She just, it just seemed like it was, like she didn't even care.
Q. What was Lisa's response to the comment that [D]estiny made to you, that she would threaten to walk out? ...
A. Well, [D]estiny did walk out one night. She abandoned her job. I had - I asked her to go take a customer's order at the front because she was the only register there and she kind of, she got mad. She went and took the order and then she went and took her lunch. At the end[] of her lunch, she came into the office during the time I was pumping. She grabbed her stuff and she left.
And so when I realized that she didn't come back, I called Lisa. Lisa told me that she needed to research this because Destiny's sister was the manager in the Milford location and she was pregnant at the time. So she was concerned something may have been serious.
Lisa came back to me and told me Destiny said that I annoyed her
And that's why she left.

Tr. 173:8-174:1; 176:11-177:14.

         As in the Camden store, the bathrooms and the office in the Dover store were the only walled-off areas. Mitra refused Lampkins' request to cover the security camera lens in the Dover office; and, like the Camden office, the Dover office had windows through which coworkers could observe Lampkins breast-pump.

         In response to questions by her counsel about coworkers entering the office in the Dover store while Lampkins breast-pumped, Lampkins testified as follows:

Q. What about were there any instances of employees walking in on you?
A. Yes. Chris. He was a new cook, so he somehow walked in. I don't know. Maybe the door wasn't latched all the way because I thought it was closed and locked, but he barged in and asked me how much chicken I wanted him to cook, so being as I was in the middle of pumping, I directed him to an experienced team member and said, ["A]sk Destiny, ["] because she was on the line. She knew what time the chicken was up. She could make an educated decision.
So he went ahead and he went to [Destiny] about it and before I could even bring up the issue of him walking in on me, I received messages from Lisa reprimanding me, telling me I was wrong, that that was a manager call. ["]Destiny should not tell him how much chicken to drop["] and I should stop what I'm doing to answer his questions.
Q. Did you experience any other interruptions while you were expressing breast milk at the workplace in Dover?
A. The office - yes, I did. The office was where everyone kept all their personal belongings, so the team members would want to come get their cellphones or their purses and things like that. So they would come knock on the door for [their] stuff.
Q. And what would your response be to those interruptions?
A. If I was covered enough or if I didn't start yet, I would let them come get it. Sometimes I would tell them that they had to wait because I would just be too exposed. It just kind of varied on those situations, but I did let them come in at times ...

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