Court orders new trial in pregnancy discrimination suit against Franciscan Alliance based on ‘monstrously excessive’ damages award

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A federal jury’s award of $5.5 million to a former Franciscan Health employee who sued the health system for pregnancy discrimination suggests the verdict was based on “passion and prejudice,” a magistrate judge has ruled in granting Franciscan’s motion for a new trial.

Taryn Duis, a former nurse at Franciscan Health Crown Point, sued Franciscan Alliance after she was fired in 2019. Duis alleged she was fired because of her pregnancy in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Family and Medical Leave Act.

In March, a jury in the Indiana Northern District Court awarded Duis $500,000 in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages.

Franciscan filed a motion for a new trial — or, alternatively, remittitur — claiming in part that the jury’s awards were “monstrously excessive” and that they demonstrated the jury was “infected with such an irrational ‘inflamed passion’ that its liability determination must be questioned.” The motion cited Fall v. Indiana Univ. Bd. of Trustees, 33 F. Supp. 2d 729, 739, 1998 WL 941098 (N.D. Ind. 1998).

The motion also noted the $5.5 million in damages exceeds the $300,000 statutory maximum Duis could have recovered under 42 U.S.C. § 1981a(b)(3)(D).

Magistrate Judge Andrew Rodovich granted Franciscan’s motion Wednesday, ruling Franciscan is entitled to a judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the claim for punitive damages and a new trial on the claim for compensatory damages.

The 21-page order mostly discusses witness testimony.

Franciscan contended during trial that Duis was fired in part because of an incident with a patient. According to Linda Steinhilber, who was the critical care manager at the time, Duis gave an “inappropriate” response to a patient’s request for pain medication — which included Duis allegedly saying she “doesn’t give a f—” if the patient wanted the medication.

There was also an incident cited involving ordering new uniforms for staff. Another nurse was in charge of working with the vendor, and Duis voiced her concern that being fitted for a uniform wasn’t practical because she was pregnant, so the uniform likely wouldn’t fit for long. The other nurse reported Duis’ behavior as “argumentative,” “loud” and “confrontational,” and said it occurred in the presence of the vendor.

The vice president of nursing at the time, Dawn Scott, described Duis’ attitude as “toxic.”

Duis testified she was “heartbroken” by her discharge and a previous suspension, claiming she couldn’t sleep and had blood pressure problems that caused her to go to the emergency room a number of times. But the court order notes there was no evidence introduced related to the ER visits or any medical expenses, and Duis didn’t seek counseling.

“This case required the jury to make credibility determinations,” the order states. “Unlike some cases, there was no margin of error caused by the imperfections of human perception. The jury had the unpleasant task of deciding who was lying.”

According to the order, Franciscan did not request a directed verdict on the claim for compensatory damages at the close of evidence, but it made the request on the claim for punitive damages.

“Therefore,” the order says, “Franciscan was not entitled to a judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the compensatory damages claim but may seek a JNOV on the award of punitive damages.”

According to the order, the verdict for compensatory damages was “contrary to the clear weight of the evidence,” both on the issue of liability and the amount of damages. The order notes five incidents involving Duis that occurred in a one-month period, including the response to a patient’s request for pain medication and the “tirade” concerning new uniforms.

Duis had also accused Steinhilber of telling her she cared for her family more than her job, which the order says “could not have been believed by a fair-minded jury.”

Duis had a greater burden in seeking an award of punitive damages, the order notes, by showing Franciscan demonstrated “egregious” conduct and violated federal law either intentionally or with reckless indifference.

“In this case, Duis provided the only evidence in support of punitive damages, but her testimony was undermined through evidence of impeachment and contradiction,” the order states. “The evidence supporting an award of punitive damages was questionable, at best.”

The order says Duis also failed to meet her burden of showing improper conduct by Franciscan, “even if one or more employees engaged in illegal conduct.”

Further, the order says the $5 million figure “reflects a clear intent to punish a large corporation.”

“Under all of the circumstances, the verdict in favor of Duis was against the clear weight of the evidence,” the order states. “The fact that the damages award was ‘monstrously excessive,’ or in a ‘staggering amount,’ suggests that the verdict was based on passion and prejudice. As such, the verdict cannot stand.”

Franciscan Health responded to the order for a new trial in a statement.

“We respectfully disagreed with the verdict in the original trial and look forward to a successful, just outcome as we move forward with the new proceedings,” a spokeswoman said.

Indiana Lawyer has also reached out to counsel for Duis for comment.

The case is Taryn N. Duis v. Franciscan Alliance Inc., a/k/a Franciscan Health Crown Point, 2:20-cv-78.

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