SALT LAKE CITY — The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a jury’s verdict on behalf of a Salt Lake County employee who was demoted after he helped a colleague pursue a sexual harassment complaint against her boss.
The county had asked the court to reverse the verdict because the plaintiff “didn’t prove various things required to make out a ‘prima facie case of retaliation,’” but the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver declined, according to an opinion published late last week.
“We can find no fault in the (U.S.) district court’s careful treatment of the merits and see only a minor aspect of its attorney fees award requiring further attention,” the opinion states.
The lawsuit referred to events that started in 2009. Plaintiff Michael Barrett claimed the county demoted him after he helped a co-worker “vindicate” her civil rights, the document states. The sexual harassment complaint “was entirely warranted,” the court wrote.
The county argued that it disciplined Barrett because he was a poor worker. But the evidence showed that Mr. Barrett's 14 years working for the county were marked only by promotions and positive reviews — that is, until he helped draw attention to his colleague's plight.
–Judge Neil Gorsuch, 10th Circuit Court of Appeals
“According to Mr. Barrett, his superiors thought him a noisy troublemaker and began a campaign to have him discharged or promoted. After he was demoted, Mr. Barrett brought this lawsuit,” the court wrote.
The county’s action, the lawsuit claimed, violated Barrett’s rights under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination.
“The jury found for Barrett. The county argued that it disciplined Barrett because he was a poor worker. But the evidence showed that Mr. Barrett’s 14 years working for the county were marked only by promotions and positive reviews — that is, until he helped draw attention to his colleague’s plight,” Circuit Judge Neil Gorsuch wrote for the three-judge panel, which included Circuit Judge Carlos Lucero and Senior Circuit Judge Terrence O’Brien.
Barrett, who has worked for the county for 20 years, is still employed by the county in what his attorney Russ Monahan describes as “a dead-end job.” While his pay has been reinstated to the level he received before he was demoted, Barrett was not reinstated to his previous position, Monahan said.
Barrett was hired by the county in 1994 as a building inspector and had worked his way to a managerial position of deputy chief building inspector in the Salt Lake County Public Works Division.
“More than anything, he just wanted to clear his name because this is a person who had a spotless record until he helped a co-worker with a complaint,” Monahan said.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said Tuesday that he would not comment on the decision because a few issues regarding attorneys fees have not been resolved.