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Maryland Court Reverses Verdict For Employer

Published by on February 23, 2009

In Gasper v. Ruffin Hotel Corp. of Maryland, Inc., the Maryland Court of Special Appeals reversed the lower court’s judgment for the defendant because of improper jury instructions regarding the plaintiff’s burden of proof.  A copy of the opinion is here.  The case included claims for sexual harassment, retaliation, and negligent hiring and retention. In […]

In Gasper v. Ruffin Hotel Corp. of Maryland, Inc., the Maryland Court of Special Appeals reversed the lower court’s judgment for the defendant because of improper jury instructions regarding the plaintiff’s burden of proof.  A copy of the opinion is here.  The case included claims for sexual harassment, retaliation, and negligent hiring and retention.

In her complaint, Gasper alleged, among other things, sexual harassment, retaliation, and negligent hiring and retention.  On defendant’s motion, the circuit court dismissed the negligent hiring and retention claim, finding that it was preempted by the state’s anti-discrimination and workers’ compensation statutes.  After a jury trial, the court entered judgment for the defendant on the remaining claims.

On appeal, Gasper argued that the circuit court erred in instructing the jury on the burden of proof with regards to the retaliation claim.  The jury was instructed that the plaintiff needed to show that her opposition to the alleged harassment was the “determining factor” in the defendant’s decision to terminate her.  The Court of Special Appeals cited two U.S. Supreme Court cases that lay out the proper standard for retaliation claims.  In Desert Palace, Inc. v. Costa, 539 U.S. 90 (2003), the Supreme Court stated that a plaintiff must show that being a member of a protected class was a “motivating factor” in the employment action.  In Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989), the Supreme Court used similar motivating factor language in its discussion of a plaintiff’s burden of proof in retaliation claims. 

Pointing to its decision in Magee v. Dansources Technical Services, Inc., 137 Md. App. 527 (2001), the Court of Special Appeals rejected the defendant’s assertion that the proper standard of proof in retaliation claims is a “but for” test.  In Magee, the court clarified an earlier decision that suggested a “but for” test for the plaintiff’s burden of proof.  The court stated that even when an employer takes into account both legitimate and illegitimate factors in making an employment decision, that decision can still be said to be “because of sex” or another protected class. 

The Court of Special Appeals also reversed the circuit court’s dismissal of Gasper’s negligent hiring and retention claim and held that it was not preempted by Maryland’s anti-discrimination statutes.  The court concluded that Gasper was seeking recovery in tort based on her attempts to report assault and battery, in addition to seeking recovery for retaliation based on the anti-discrimination statutes.  The court reasoned that the tort claim based on the assault and battery was grounded in public policy and exists apart from the anti-discrimination statutes.  The court also rejected defendant’s argument that the negligent hiring and retention claim was preempted by the state’s workers’ compensation statute as the defendant had not provided any authority in support of its contention.

Contributed by Claudia L. Guzman

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