Roy Jones v. TEK Ind. ( 2003 )


Menu:
  •                      United States Court of Appeals
                               FOR THE EIGHTH CIRCUIT
                                        ___________
    
                                        No. 01-3620
                                        ___________
    
    Roy Jones, Christopher Gracier,         *
    Kirk Maeder, Ronald Cichowski,          *
    Austin Dehaas,                          *
                                            *
               Plaintiffs/Appellants,       * Appeal from the United States
                                            * District Court for the
    Harvey Hobby,                           * District of Nebraska.
                                            *
               Plaintiff,                   *
                                            *
               v.                           *
                                            *
    TEK Industries, Inc., a corporation,    *
                                            *
               Defendant/Appellee.          *
                                       ___________
    
                                  Submitted: December 13, 2002
    
                                       Filed: February 11, 2003
                                        ___________
    
    Before WOLLMAN, HEANEY, and MAGILL, Circuit Judges.
                             ___________
    
    WOLLMAN, Circuit Judge.
    
           Current and former inmates of the Nebraska State Penitentiary, Roy Jones,
    Christopher Gracier, Kirk Maeder, Ronald Cichowski, and Austin Dehaas (Inmates),
    initiated this action against TEK Industries, Inc. (TEK), their employer at the time the
    alleged incidents occurred, claiming that they suffered religious discrimination in
    violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 42 U.S.C.§§ 2000e et seq.
    
          Following the jury’s adverse verdict, Inmates moved for judgment as a matter
    of law, or, in the alternative, for a new trial. It is from the district court’s1 denial of
    those motions that Inmates now appeal. We affirm.
    
                                         I. Background
    
           Inmates practice the House of Yahweh religion. Practitioners of the House of
    Yahweh observe the Sabbath from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. They
    may not eat pork, or any foods that have been prepared with or have contacted pork,
    or celebrate holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, that are not recognized by the
    House of Yahweh.
    
           Inmates were employed by TEK while serving their sentences in the Nebraska
    State Penitentiary. TEK is a private corporation that runs a manufacturing facility in
    the prison, at which approximately 120 inmates are employed. Because TEK pays
    employees at least the minimum hourly wage, employment at TEK is desirable and
    competitive. TEK provides special meals to inmate employees four times per year to
    show appreciation for the employees’ hard work. During the time-period relevant to
    this appeal, at least two of these meals were scheduled at Christmas and Easter.
    
            TEK’s attendance policy provides that employees receive thirty hours of
    absentee time for the six-month periods of January 1 to June 30, and July 1 to
    December 31. If the employee has not used his allotted absentee hours during the
    first six months of the year, the hours remaining may be added to his allotment for the
    
    
          1
          The Honorable Warren K. Urbom, United States District Judge for the District
    of Nebraska.
    
                                               -2-
    second six-month period. Hours that have been accrued by employees but not used
    may not be carried over to the subsequent calendar year. Employees receive an
    additional seven days of paid holidays after having been employed by TEK for one
    year.
    
           Employees whose absences exceed the allotted hours during a six-month period
    are placed on probation. The duration of probation correlates to the number of hours
    of work missed by an employee. If, after an employee is placed on probation, his
    absences continue to exceed his allotted absentee time, the employee is suspended for
    two days without pay. TEK terminates the employee if his absences continue.
    According to testimony adduced at trial, TEK did not enforce the probationary
    procedures against Inmates. Inmates who had violated the attendance policy were
    neither placed on probation nor suspended. TEK, however, terminated Inmates Jones
    and Gracier because of excessive absences. Gracier was reinstated ultimately, and
    continued to work for TEK until he resigned voluntarily and transferred to the
    Hastings Correctional Center. TEK did not terminate Maeder and Cichowski, and
    they were still employed by TEK at the time of trial. Dehaas resigned from TEK in
    good standing before he was transferred to the Lincoln Correctional Center.
    
           During the week, TEK operates a morning shift from 7:30 a.m. until 11:00 a.m.
    and an afternoon shift from 11:45 a.m. until 3:45 p.m., although employees may work
    until 5 p.m. Under prison rules, TEK may not operate after 5 p.m. Because of the
    limited hours that the TEK facility is open during the week, TEK employees
    occasionally work on Saturdays. Prior to 1999, these shifts were voluntary. In 1999,
    after a significant increase in demand for TEK products and services, TEK instituted
    mandatory Saturday shifts. The number of mandatory Saturdays scheduled varied
    from shop to shop within TEK’s facility: the assembly shop worked nine mandatory
    Saturdays in 1999, two in 2000, and none in 2001; the die maker shop worked six
    mandatory Saturdays in 1999, eleven in 2000, and one in 2001.
    
    
    
                                             -3-
           Prior to being hired by TEK, Inmates informed TEK of their religious beliefs
    and that they would be unable to work on Saturdays because it conflicted with their
    Sabbath. Inmates state that they were informed that Saturdays would be an optional
    workday. After the institution of mandatory Saturday workdays in 1999, Inmates
    refused to work on the Saturday shifts. Inmates used their absentee-hours to cover
    their Saturday absences. Inmates, however, also were absent for numerous other
    reasons, including illness and personal time.
    
                                        II. Discussion
    
                                              A.
    
           We review a district court’s denial of a motion for judgment as a matter of law
    de novo, employing the same standard as that of the district court. Phillips v.
    Collings, 
    256 F.3d 843
    , 847 (8th Cir. 2001). A court may render judgment as a matter
    of law when there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to
    find for the nonmoving party on an issue and all of the evidence directs against a
    finding for the nonmoving party. Id. at 847; see also Belk v. City of Eldon, 
    228 F.3d 872
    , 877 (8th Cir. 2000). We consider the facts in the light most favorable to the
    nonmoving party. Phillips, 256 F.3d at 847; Belk, 228 F.3d at 877.
    
           We review a district court’s denial of a motion for new trial with great
    deference, reversing only if the district court abused its discretion. Belk, 228 F.3d at
    878. We “give great deference to [the district court’s] judgment, because [it] has the
    benefit of hearing testimony and observing the demeanor of the witnesses throughout
    the trial.” Bonner v. ISP Techs., Inc., 
    259 F.3d 924
    , 932 (8th Cir. 2001) (citing
    Sanford v. Crittenden Mem’l Hosp., 
    141 F.3d 882
    , 884 (8th Cir. 1998)). The grant
    of a motion for a new trial is inappropriate unless “the verdict is against the weight
    of the evidence and [] allowing it to stand would result in a miscarriage of justice.”
    Lloyd v. Am. Airlines, Inc., 
    291 F.3d 503
    , 508-09 (8th Cir. 2002).
    
                                              -4-
           Title VII prohibits an employer from “discharg[ing] any individual, or
    otherwise [] discriminat[ing] against any individual with respect to his compensation,
    terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s . . .
    religion[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). To establish a prima facie case of religious
    discrimination under Title VII, Inmates must show that they have a bona fide
    religious belief that conflicts with an employment requirement; that they informed
    TEK of this belief; and that they were disciplined for failing to comply with the
    conflicting requirement of employment. Ansonia Bd. of Educ. v. Philbrook, 
    479 U.S. 60
    , 65-66 (1986) (quotation omitted); Seaworth v. Pearson, 
    203 F.3d 1056
    , 1057 (8th
    Cir. 2000) (per curiam).
    
           The jury found that Inmates held sincere religious beliefs in the teachings and
    practices of the House of Yahweh religion and that Inmates had informed TEK of
    these beliefs. The jury also found, however, that Inmates failed to show that TEK
    disciplined or discharged them because of the alleged conflict between their religious
    beliefs and observances and the requirements of their employment.
    
           Inmates argue that they suffered adverse employment actions as a result of their
    religious practices and beliefs. Inmates assert that they were terminated because of
    excessive absenteeism, and that their absences from work were the direct result of
    their observance of the Sabbath on Saturday. It is undisputed that TEK deducted
    hours from Inmates’ allotted time for absences when Inmates missed work. Inmates
    Jones and Gracier, in fact, were terminated by TEK for excessive absenteeism. TEK
    reinstated Gracier eleven days after his termination; Gracier later resigned, after
    having requested a transfer to another facility.
    
           Our review of the record leads us to conclude that the amount of time deducted
    as a result of Inmates’ Saturday absences composed a minimal portion of the total
    hours deducted from their allotment. Furthermore, despite Saturday absences in
    observation of their faith, Inmates Maeder, Cichowski, and Dehaas were not
    
                                             -5-
    terminated by TEK for excessive absenteeism. Inmates have not shown that they
    would have retained their jobs with TEK—that they would not have been terminated
    for excessive absenteeism—had they worked on Saturdays and other religious
    festivals, in violation of the tenets of their faith. Thus, Inmates fail to prove the third
    element of a prima facie case for religious discrimination under Title VII: that they
    were disciplined for failure to comply with the conflicting requirement of their
    employment. Because the majority of Inmates’ absences did not result from their
    observation of the Sabbath, the district court did not ignore the weight of the evidence
    in determining that there was a substantial evidentiary basis for the jury’s verdict.
    Accordingly, the district court did not err in denying Inmates’ motion for judgment
    as a matter of law on this issue, nor did it abuse its discretion in denying their motion
    for a new trial.
    
          Inmates claim that they suffered adverse employment actions because they
    were neither promoted nor were given raises as quickly and to the same degree as
    were employees who did not practice the House of Yahweh religion. We conclude,
    however, that the record supports the jury’s finding that Inmates did not suffer
    adverse employment actions.
    
           Inmates’ claims of religious discrimination included TEK’s alleged refusal to
    provide an entree that satisfied Inmates’ dietary restrictions at a bonus meal. Had
    Inmates established a prima facie case under Title VII, “the burden [would have]
    shift[ed] to the employer to show that accommodation [of the religious practice]
    would [have] result[ed] in undue hardship to the employer.” Seaworth, 203 F.3d at
    1057 (citations omitted).
    
           Because Inmates failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination, we
    need not reach the question whether TEK reasonably accommodated their religious
    beliefs. In any event, the jury determined that TEK had reasonably accommodated
    
    
    
                                               -6-
    Inmates’ religious beliefs, both with respect to the mandatory Saturdays, as well as
    to the bonus meal, a finding that is supported by the evidence.
    
                           B. Introduction of Criminal Convictions
    
           Inmates argue that the district court abused its discretion by allowing TEK’s
    counsel to ask Inmates to state the names of the crimes of which they had been
    convicted. Evidence of a felony conviction is admissible under Rule 609(a)(1) of the
    Federal Rules of Evidence, subject to the limitations of Rule 403. Inmates contend
    that the district court abused its discretion in finding that the enumeration of the
    specific crime committed was more probative than prejudicial under Rule 403.
    
            “The district court has broad discretion in deciding whether to admit evidence
    at trial. We will reverse the district court only for a clear and prejudicial abuse of that
    discretion.” United States v. Ford, 
    11 F.3d 1100
    , 1103 (8th Cir. 1994) (quoting
    United States v. Wright, 
    799 F.2d 423
    , 425 (8th Cir. 1986)). The jury was aware that
    Inmates were incarcerated at the Nebraska State Penitentiary, a medium/maximum
    security prison, during the time the incidents at issue in the trial occurred. The court
    determined that the evidence would assist the jury in evaluating the credibility of the
    witnesses’ testimony. As we have written, “most jurors probably do not understand
    the range of offense connoted by the term felony, and thus [may] need to know the
    specific crime in order to evaluate its effect on credibility.” Id. at 1003 (quoting
    Cummings v. Malone, 
    995 F.2d 817
    , 826 (8th Cir. 1993) (quotation omitted)). In
    this case, the specific details of the crimes were omitted, as were details about the
    victims, thus minimizing any potential prejudice to Inmates. Furthermore, the court
    instructed the jury explicitly that “the evidence of the crime for which a person is
    convicted and a sentence given is usable . . . only to test the credibility of the witness.
    . . . Nothing else.” The court repeated this limiting instruction during its final
    instructions to the jury. We conclude that the court did not abuse its discretion in
    allowing the crimes to be enumerated.
    
                                               -7-
    Inmates’ remaining contention is without merit and requires no discussion.
    
    The judgment is affirmed.
    
    A true copy.
    
          Attest:
    
             CLERK, U.S. COURT OF APPEALS, EIGHTH CIRCUIT.
    
    
    
    
                                     -8-