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Case Style: Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Breverage Distributors Company, LLC
Case Number: 14-1012
Court: United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit on appeal from the District Court of Colorado (Denver County)
Plaintiff's Attorney: James Tucker, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Washington,
D.C. (P. David Lopez, General Counsel, Carolyn L. Wheeler, Acting
Associate General Counsel, and Jennifer S. Goldstein, Acting Assistant
General Counsel, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission,
Washington, D.C., with him on the brief), for Appellee.
Defendant's Attorney: Scott Forman, Littler Mendelson, P.C., Miami, Florida (Joshua B.Kirkpatrick and Jennifer S. Harpole, Littler Mendelson, P.C., Denver,
Colorado, with him on the brief), for Appellant.
Description: This case involves a claim of employment discrimination. Mr.
Michael Sungaila, who is legally blind, worked for Beverage Distributors
Company. When his position was eliminated, Mr. Sungaila obtained a
higher-paying job in the company’s warehouse. But, Mr. Sungaila’s
employment was conditioned on passing a physical examination.
Mr. Sungaila passed the physical. But, the examining doctor stated
that Mr. Sungaila would require workplace accommodations to mitigate the
risks from his impaired vision. Beverage Distributors concluded that it
could not reasonably accommodate Mr. Sungaila’s condition and rescinded
the offer of a job in the warehouse. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Sungaila found
a lower-paying position with another company.
Mr. Sungaila filed a discrimination claim with the Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission, which then sued Beverage Distributors on Mr.
Sungaila’s behalf under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
At trial, Beverage Distributors asserted two defenses.
1. Direct Threat. Beverage Distributors stated that Mr. Sungaila’s
impaired vision would create a significant risk of harm to
himself and others and no reasonable accommodations could
reduce or eliminate that risk.
2. Failure to Mitigate Damages. Beverage Distributors added that
if Mr. Sungaila were to prevail, the fact-finder should reduce
the award because of a failure to mitigate damages.
The jury found that Beverage Distributors was liable for
discrimination and that Mr. Sungaila was not a direct threat. But, the jury
also found that Mr. Sungaila had failed to mitigate his damages. Based on
these findings, the jury awarded Mr. Sungaila a reduced back pay award
because of his failure to mitigate.
The EEOC filed two post-trial motions. In the first motion, the EEOC
invoked Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a) and argued that Beverage
Distributors had not proven as a matter of law that Mr. Sungaila failed to
mitigate his damages. The court agreed and reinstated the full damage
award. In the second motion, the EEOC sought a tax-penalty offset to
compensate Mr. Sungaila for the additional tax liability resulting from the
lump-sum award of back pay. The court granted that motion and awarded
the tax offset.
Beverage Distributors appeals, arguing in part:
1. The direct-threat instruction constitutes reversible error; and
2. the district court abused its discretion in awarding the tax
We reverse because the direct-threat jury instruction constituted error. But,
if the EEOC prevails upon retrial, Mr. Sungaila may be entitled to a tax
I. Direct-Threat Instruction
Beverage Distributors argues that the direct-threat instruction
constituted reversible error. We agree, concluding that the instruction
inaccurately conveyed the direct-threat standard.
A. Standard of Review
We first consider whether the direct-threat instruction is erroneous.
In doing so, we review the entire instruction de novo1 to determine whether
it accurately states the governing law. Gardetto v. Mason, 100 F.3d 803,
816 (10th Cir. 1996).
B. Direct-Threat Defense
The direct-threat defense stems from the Americans with Disabilities
Act. Under the Act, an employer cannot discriminate on the basis of a
disability. See 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). But, an employer may decide not to
hire disabled individuals if they pose a “direct threat to the health or
safety” of themselves or others. 29 C.F.R. § 1630.15(b)(2). A “direct
threat” involves “a significant risk of substantial harm to the health or
safety of the [person] or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by
reasonable accommodation.” 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(r).
The existence of a direct threat is an affirmative defense to a
statutory claim of discrimination. McKenzie v. Benton, 388 F.3d 1342,
1353-54 (10th Cir. 2004). For this defense, Beverage Distributors had to
1 The EEOC urges an abuse-of-discretion standard. We disagree. That
standard is appropriate only when we are reviewing a district court’s
decision to give (or not to give) a specific instruction. See Lederman v.
Frontier Fire Prot., Inc., 685 F.3d 1151, 1154 (10th Cir. 2012) (stating
that appellate courts “review a district court’s decision to give a particular
jury instruction for abuse of discretion”). Here, we are reviewing the legal
sufficiency of an instruction, which is a question we review de novo.
Townsend v. Lumbermens Mut. Cas. Co., 294 F.3d 1232, 1237 (10th Cir.
2002); Sherouse v. Ratchner, 573 F.3d 1055, 1059 (10th Cir. 2009).
show that it reasonably determined that Mr. Sungaila had posed a direct
threat. See Jarvis v. Potter, 500 F.3d 1113, 1122 (10th Cir. 2007) (stating
that “the fact-finder does not independently assess whether it believes that
the employee posed a direct threat,” but “determine[s] [instead] whether
the employer’s decision was objectively reasonable”).
In sum, Beverage Distributors could avoid liability by showing that it
1. Mr. Sungaila posed a significant risk of substantial harm to the
health or safety of himself or others, and
2. that risk could not be eliminated or reduced by reasonable
C. The Direct-Threat Instruction
We consider these elements to determine whether the district court
correctly instructed the jury. Doing so, we conclude that the instruction did
not accurately convey the direct-threat standard.
The direct-threat instruction contained two parts. The first part
explained what Beverage Distributors had to “prove” to establish the
To establish this defense, Beverage Distributors must
prove both of the following by a preponderance of the
1. Mr. Sungaila’s employment in a Night Warehouse
position posed a significant risk of substantial harm to
the health or safety of Mr. Sungaila and/or other
2. Such a risk could not have been eliminated or reduced by
Appellant’s App. at 78. The second part of the instruction elaborated
on the standard:
The determination that a direct threat exists must have been
based on a specific personal assessment of Mr. Sungaila’s
ability to safely perform the essential functions of the job. This
assessment of Mr. Sungaila’s ability must have been based on
either a reasonable medical judgment that relied on medical
knowledge [or best objective evidence] available at the time of
assessment . . . . An employer’s subjective belief that a direct
threat exists, even if maintained in good faith, is not sufficient
unless it is objectively reasonable.
. . . .
In determining whether Beverage Distributors acted
objectively reasonably when it determined that Mr. Sungaila
was a direct threat, you must consider the following factors: (a)
the duration of the risk; (b) the nature and severity of the
potential harm; (c) the likelihood that the potential harm would
occur; and (d) the imminence of the potential harm.
Id. The instruction did not accurately convey the direct-threat standard.
The first part of the instruction required Beverage Distributors to
prove more than what was legally necessary. According to the first part,
Beverage Distributors had to prove that Mr. Sungaila posed a direct threat.
That was not accurate under our case law. Beverage Distributors should
have avoided liability if it had reasonably believed the job would entail a
direct threat; proof of an actual threat should have been unnecessary. See
Jarvis v. Potter, 500 F.3d 1113, 1122 (10th Cir. 2007) (“[T]he fact-finder
does not independently assess whether it believes that the employee posed
a direct threat.”). Thus, the instruction overstated Beverage Distributors’
burden. See Menne v. Celotex Corp., 861 F.2d 1453, 1470-71 (10th Cir.
1988) (concluding that jury instructions were erroneous because they
confused the burden of proof).
The second part of the instruction did not cure the error. This part
stated that the jury was to consider the reasonableness of Beverage
Distributors’ belief regarding the existence of a direct threat. But, the jury
was never told why it was to consider the reasonableness of what Beverage
Distributors thought. Thus, the error was not cured by a reference in the
instruction to the reasonableness of the company’s subjective belief.2
In sum, the instruction was erroneous. The first part of the
instruction inaccurately stated that Beverage Distributors had to prove that
Mr. Sungaila posed a direct threat. And the second part of the instruction
did not cure the error by directing the jury, without explanation, to
consider the reasonableness of Beverage Distributors’ belief.
2 The EEOC suggests that the instruction directed the jury to consider
Beverage Distributors’ subjective determination by referring to that
determination in the past tense. For instance, the instruction stated that
“[t]he determination that a direct threat exist[ed] must have been based on
a specific personal assessment of Mr. Sungaila’s ability to safely perform
the essential functions of the job.” Appellant’s App. at 78 (emphasis
added). We reject this argument. Even if the instruction had directed the
jury to consider Beverage Distributors’ determination, that determination
was about the “existence” of a direct threat, not the objective
reasonableness of the determination.
D. Need for Reversal
We must reverse if the jury might have relied on an erroneous jury
instruction. Level 3 Commc’n, LLC v. Liebert Corp., 535 F.3d 1146, 1158
(10th Cir. 2008). Thus, reversal is warranted even if it is “very unlikely”
that the jury relied on the erroneous standard. Id.
We conclude that the jury might have relied on the erroneous directthreat
standard; thus, reversal is warranted. The inaccurate standard
appeared prominently in the instruction, and the verdict form directed the
jury to consider that erroneous standard. See Appellant’s App. at 91 (“Did
Defendant Beverage Distributors prove . . . both elements of its affirmative
defense that Mr. Sungaila’s employment in the Night Warehouse position
posed a direct threat to himself or other employees . . . ?” (emphasis
added)). Because the instruction and verdict form could have misled the
jury on the standard, we must reverse.
II. Mitigation of Damages
Beverage Distributors also argues that the district court erroneously
granted the EEOC’s Rule 50(a) motion, arguing that the evidence could
have allowed the jury to find a failure to mitigate damages. We need not
decide this issue. The sufficiency of the evidence entails a fact-intensive
inquiry, and the mitigation evidence may be different on remand. Thus, we
decline to address the sufficiency of the mitigation evidence.3 See Doering
ex rel. Barrett v. Copper Mountain, Inc., 259 F.3d 1202, 1216 (10th Cir.
2001) (declining to address the award of punitive damages when the Court
reversed the judgment based on error in the jury instructions).
III. Tax Offset
Beverage Distributors argues that the district court abused its
discretion in awarding Mr. Sungaila a tax penalty offset.4 This issue is
affected by our reversal of the EEOC’s award. On remand, this issue might
or might not recur. But, unlike mitigation of damages, the tax offset issue
is primarily legal rather than factual. Thus, we will address the issue.
Doing so, we conclude that the district court did not err in awarding a tax
3 The EEOC has suggested that we might lack jurisdiction over this
part of the appeal. Appellee’s Supp. Resp. Br. at 12 n.5 (Feb. 5, 2015).
Because we are declining to address the issue on other grounds, we need
not address the EEOC’s suggestion that we lack jurisdiction.
4 Beverage Distributors also asserts that the offset award constituted
unlawful additur in violation of the Seventh Amendment. But, the company
did not raise this argument in district court. See Appellee’s Supp. App. at
7-8. Thus, this argument has been forfeited. See Cummings v. Norton, 393
F.3d 1186, 1190 (10th Cir. 2005). Though we can consider forfeited
arguments under the plain-error standard, Beverage Distributors has not
argued plain error. See Bishop v. Smith, 760 F.3d 1070, 1095 (10th Cir.
2014) (stating that we will not consider the possibility of plain error on a
forfeited theory when the claimant fails to argue for plain error), cert.
denied, __ U.S. __, 135 S. Ct. 271 (2014).
The EEOC argues that we lack jurisdiction because the notice of
appeal preceded the district court’s entry of judgment and computation of
the amount. See EEOC v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 187 F.3d 1241, 1250 (10th
Cir. 1999) (discussing prematurity of an appeal involving a post-judgment
award of attorneys’ fees). But, we conclude that we have jurisdiction on
the tax offset issue.
Even if the notice of appeal had been premature, Beverage
Distributors filed a post-judgment motion for a stay pending appeal. This
motion (1) specified that Beverage Distributors was taking the appeal, (2)
stated that the company was appealing the “monetary components” of the
district court’s amended order, which would necessarily include the tax
offset award, and (3) stated that the appeal was to our court. Def.’s Mot.
for Stay Pending Appeal at 1, EEOC v. Beverage Distributs. Co., LLC, No.
1:11-cv-02557-CBA-CBS (filed May 13, 2014), Doc. No. 137. Thus, the
motion for a stay served as the “functional equivalent” of a notice of
appeal under Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 3. See Smith v. Barry,
502 U.S. 244, 248-49 (1992) (“If a document . . . gives the notice required
by Rule 3, it is effective as a notice of appeal.”). In these circumstances,
we have appellate jurisdiction.
Courts have broad discretion in prescribing remedies for victims of
discrimination. See Franks v. Bowman Transp. Co., 424 U.S. 747, 763
(1976). One such remedy is a tax penalty offset, which compensates
victims for additional tax liabilities they would incur as a result of a lumpsum
payment. See Sears v. Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Ry., Co., 749 F.2d
1451, 1456 (10th Cir. 1984) (awarding a tax offset for victims of
The district court determined that Mr. Sungaila was entitled to a tax
penalty offset. Mr. Sungaila obtained a lump-sum damage award, which
would increase his tax liability.5 Given this result, the court concluded that
an offset would compensate Mr. Sungaila for the added liability and
“restore [him] to the position he would have been but for his wrongful
separation from Beverage Distributors.” EEOC v. Beverage Distribs. Co.,
LLC, No. 11-cv-02557, 2013 WL 6458735, at *8 (D. Colo. Dec. 9, 2013).
This award fell within the district court’s discretion. Mr. Sungaila
obtained a lump-sum damage award that would increase his tax liability.
And the court acted within its discretion in compensating Mr. Sungaila for
the added burden.
5 The parties do not dispute that the lump-sum award would increase
Mr. Sungaila’s tax liability.
Beverage Distributors disagrees. In its view, Mr. Sungaila is not
entitled to the offset because his added tax burden would not be
“significant.” Appellant’s Opening Br. at 39. This argument is based on
Blim v. W. Elec. Co., 731 F.2d 1473 (10th Cir. 1984). We are not
In Blim, we concluded that a tax offset award was improper because
the plaintiffs would “suffer no significant tax penalty.” 731 F.2d at 1480.
The penalty would not have been “significant” because the plaintiffs could
eliminate “nearly all” of their additional tax liability by using the tax
code’s averaging provisions. Id.
That reasoning is inapplicable here. Unlike the plaintiffs in Blim, Mr.
Sungaila cannot lighten his additional tax liability because Congress
repealed the averaging provisions in 1986. See Tax Reform Act of 1986,
Pub. L. No. 99-514, § 141(a), 100 Stat. 2117 (repealing 26 U.S.C. §§ 1302-
1305). Without other ways of reducing the added tax liability, Mr. Sungaila
would experience a tax disadvantage that the Blim plaintiffs were able to
Beverage Distributors also contends that Mr. Sungaila is not entitled
to an offset because his case is “typical.” Appellant’s Opening Br. at 39.
This contention is based on our opinion in Sears v. Atchison, Topeka &
Santa Fe Ry., Co., where we affirmed an offset award while suggesting that
such an award “may not be appropriate in a typical [discrimination] case.”
749 F.2d 1451, 1456 (10th Cir. 1984). But, we did not hold that tax offsets
were limited to atypical cases. In our view, the district court acted within
its discretion even if Mr. Sungaila’s situation might be considered
“typical.” See, e.g., EEOC v. N. Star Hospitality, Inc., __ F.3d __, No. 14-
1660, 2015 WL 363997, at *5 (7th Cir. Jan. 29, 2015) (upholding an award
of a tax offset in an EEOC claim on behalf of a single plaintiff in order to
make the plaintiff “whole”).
Accordingly, we conclude that the district court did not err in
awarding a tax offset.
Outcome: We conclude that (1) the direct-threat jury instruction constituted
reversible error, and (2) the district court did not err in awarding a tax