Louisiana's high court has agreed with an East Baton Rouge Parish jury's finding that a former longtime University of Louisiana at Lafayette Police Department employee was discriminated against because of his age.
But in a ruling Friday, the state Supreme Court reduced the amount of money the jury awarded to James Robinson from $367,000 to $207,000.
Robinson was 66 when he retired with the rank of major in May 2011 as second in command. He had worked for the department for four decades.
Robinson claims he was forced to retire due to UL-Lafayette Police Chief Joey Sturm's elimination of Robinson's job duties and the chief's harassment of him.
In a 6-1 decision, the Supreme Court agreed with Robinson that he was forced out of his job after being subjected to embarrassment, humiliation and treatment with less respect than that deserved by a major and second in the chain of command at the campus police department.
"We find that the record reasonably supports the conclusion that Major Robinson's duties were taken away from him prior to May 2011, and that these duties were reassigned to subordinates," Justice James Genovese wrote for the majority.
"In addition to being stripped of his duties, Major Robinson was subjected to embarrassing and demeaning behavior by Chief Sturm, who also ostracized him from command staff meetings, who yelled at him, who called him incompetent, and who called him names within earshot of lower ranking officers."
Robinson contends Sturm's negative and disrespectful treatment of him "infected" other officers of the department, who made negative comments directed at Robinson due to his age.
"We find that the nature and frequency of these remarks directed at Major Robinson, which were clearly based upon age, while not necessarily determinative of discrimination, are certainly probative," Genovese added. "These age-based remarks, which were heard by the jury, along with the other evidence presented by Major Robinson, provide a reasonable and legal basis for the conclusions reached by the jury."
However, the Supreme Court said the jury erred in awarding Robinson $367,000. Robinson testified he had intended to work for three more years. He was earning $69,000 a year at the time of his retirement, so three year's worth of salary at that amount would come to $207,000, the high court said.
The court's lone dissenter, Justice John Weimer, said the age-based comments that Robinson presented at trial did not come from decision makers but from police officers holding ranks lower than him.
The police chief, who had the decision-making authority, assigned Robinson duties, cited him for insubordination, imposed a suspension for the insubordination, and rescinded the suspension when Robinson declared his intent to retire, Weimer said.
"There was no evidence by which the jury could find an age-based motivation for the police chief's actions, which is why (Robinson) attempted — unsuccessfully — to equate (his) subordinates as his superiors for the purposes of the employment actions taken prior to (his) announced plan to retire," the justice added.
But Genovese and the rest of his colleagues — Chief Justice Bernette Johnson and Justices Greg Guidry, Scott Crichton, Marcus Clark and Jeff Hughes — disagreed with Weimer.