A federal appeals court ruled a lawsuit can proceed alleging a former Evansville public works employee was fired for reporting an injury incurred on the job and his boss’ anti-Hispanic slurs.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver reversed last week a federal district court judge finding of summary judgment against Roy Mestas. Although the lower court had found Mestas did not demonstrate a record of disability covered by federal law or show the town department maintained a racially hostile work environment, the 10th Circuit panel of three judges found a reasonable jury might find in Mestas’ favor on those issues.
The decision means the case should return to Judge Nancy D. Freudenthal’s courtroom, where in November 2017 she found against Mestas and dismissed the case before it could go to trial.
Mestas’ attorney, Megan Hayes of Laramie, said by phone this week that she was satisfied with the order, which comprehensively reversed Freudenthal’s decision. After noting her respect for the judge, Hayes said the trial court’s decision was misguided in its legal analysis.
The 10th Circuit judges agreed.
“They seemed very certain that (the lower court’s decision) was wrong not only on the law but also on the facts,” Hayes said.
Mestas alleged in the lawsuit’s initial filing that his supervisor, Dale Brown, repeatedly referred to Mestas and a co-worker — who are both Hispanic — by ethnic slurs and belittled and eventually fired Mestas for taking medical leave. Freudenthal, however, found the alleged slurs were “offhand comments and isolated incidents” that did not rise to the level of a racially hostile work environment. The judge in 2017 also ruled that Mestas did not do enough to demonstrate to Brown that he was injured and would qualify for protections under federal law.
Brown was not listed among Evansville public works employees on the town’s website. A person answering a phone number listed for Brown’s address declined to comment for this story.
Thomas Thompson, the Rawlins lawyer who argued Evansville’s case before the Denver court, did not respond to a Thursday afternoon email requesting comment for this story. Mayor Jennifer Sorenson did not immediately respond to a Thursday afternoon voicemail message requesting comment for this story.
In its Sept. 6 order, the 10th Circuit determined disputed factual claims that could be used to support Mestas’ claims he was discriminated against on grounds of disability should have prevented the lower court from closing the case. An allegation by Mestas that Brown said while firing Mestas that he “should go take care of (his) back and whatever” could be used at trial by a jury to find causation for the firing.
The appeals court also ruled that a district court is not well-suited to determine by summary judgment whether comments are discriminatory and pervasive enough to trigger application of civil rights law. A reasonable jury could find a hostile work environment, the 10th Circuit ruled, with evidence Brown repeatedly called Mestas and his co-worker by racial slurs.
Because Brown fired Mestas within three weeks of when Mestas said he made a direct complaint to Brown about racial slurs, a jury might also reasonably infer the supervisor retaliated against Mestas, the appellate court ruled.
Hayes said Wednesday that once the 10th Circuit issues a mandate formally returning the case to the lower court, the district court case will continue toward a new trial date. When asked about a potential out-of-court settlement, Hayes was noncommittal. She said she hadn’t spoken to the town’s legal team since the order was issued last week.
The lawyer told the Star-Tribune, however, that Mestas wants the town to put in place a procedure for complaints pertaining to federal civil rights law. Supervisors and administrators should be trained in the law, which isn’t currently the case, Hayes said.