American Family Insurance Hit With $20M Job Bias Verdict

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By Patrick Dorrian

Dec. 12 — American Family Mutual Insurance Co. must pay a former sales manager more than $20 million for discrimination based on her age or gender and for job retaliation, a Missouri state jury ruled ( Miller v. Bosman , Mo. Cir. Ct., No. 1416-CV02573, jury verdict 12/9/16 ).

The verdict in favor of Debbie Miller, which includes $450,000 in compensatory damages and $20 million in punitive damages, is a record for an employment discrimination award under Missouri law, one of her attorneys told Bloomberg BNA Dec. 12.

“It’s the highest ever under the Missouri Human Rights Act” since jury trials became available under the law in 2005, said Dennis E. Egan of the Popham Law Firm P.C. in Kansas City, Mo.

“We strongly disagree with the verdict and believe it is contrary to the facts and testimony that were presented at trial,” the company said Dec. 12 in an e-mailed statement provided to Bloomberg BNA by a spokesman. “We do not illegally discriminate in any way, and there was no discrimination in this situation. We are considering our options for appeal.”

Demoted at Age 57

Miller was demoted from a sales manager position to a sales agent position at age 57, according to Egan. She claimed the demotion was based on her age or gender and because she refused to follow the company’s instruction to get retirement letters from the older agents under her management.

The discrimination against Miller started when a “new bullying, intimidating, hostile” manager, John Bosman, became her supervisor, Egan said. Bosman told Miller that American Family wanted her “gone,” citing poor performance, but this wasn’t really a valid reason, according to Egan.

Instead, Bosman gave Miller the explanation that her leadership was poor and that she failed to inspire her agents. Miller was told that she “can’t have the hard conversations” because she refused to push out high-performing agents as the company wanted her to do, Egan said. American Family’s independent sales agents are older as a group, Egan said.

Miller’s younger replacement as sales manager later got retirement letters from the older agents by repeatedly pressing them to retire and by setting impossible performance goals for them, Egan said.

PIP Was Formality

When Miller pressed Bosman for advice on how she could improve her performance, Bosman didn’t offer any, Egan said.

Miller had that conversation on tape, Egan said.

The company also didn’t seek feedback on Miller’s performance from the agents under her supervision, Egan said. “They all said she was the best” when later asked, he said.

Bosman placed Miller on a performance improvement plan that she had no chance of meeting, Egan said. Regarding the PIP, Bosman told Miller “this will not end well for you,” according to Egan. Bosman “prejudged the PIP,” he said.

Miller ultimately was called into the office by Bosman while she was out on approved medical leave and given the option of a demotion or retirement. She chose the former and is still employed by American Family, Egan said.

Further Award to Come

The court will now rule on Miller’s request for front pay after hearing testimony from her economic expert witness, Egan said. Miller also is entitled to an award of attorneys’ fees, Egan added.

He said he couldn’t state how much will be sought in attorneys’ fees or front pay other than to say the latter request will be “sizable.”

The evidence that may have persuaded the jury to award Miller as much as it did in punitive damages included Bosman’s taking the stand and acting “disgusted to be there,” Egan said. There also was evidence that an investigation conducted by human resources showed everyone knew Bosman was bullying Miller, he said.

One of the witnesses during the HR investigation, another female sales manager, had told the company of an undertone in its Missouri sales operations of discrimination against female managers, including pressure to “maintain a look of 30s and slim,” Egan said. That woman is also still employed by American Family, and when she testified at trial, she “tried to run from” the statement she gave to HR, but it was clear she was “conflicted,” Egan said.

Kevin C. Baldwin of Baldwin & Vernon in Liberty, Mo., also represented Miller. Jeffrey D. Hanslick, Curtis R. Summers and Kyle A. Kitson of Littler Mendelson in Kansas City, Mo., represented the insurer and Bosman.

For More Information

Text of the compensatory damages verdict is available at http://src.bna.com/kHg and text of the punitive damages verdict is available at http://src.bna.com/kHh.

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