A recent ruling by the Court of Appeals for the Eastern District of Missouri illustrates the perils of using disjunctive verdict directing instructions. In Kader v. Bd. of Regents, the court reversed a $2.5 million verdict against Harris-Stowe State University (“HSSU”) and remanded the case for a new trial based upon instructional error in the disjunctive verdict directing instruction.
Plaintiff Kader sued under the Missouri Human Rights Act, alleging that the Board of Regents of HSSU discriminated against her based upon several factors, including race and national origin, and retaliated against her for opposing the university’s discriminatory practices. Kader, originally from Egypt, came to the United States on a visa for individuals involved a work and study based program. After completing her studies, she worked at HSSU for three years under her original visa. HSSU then appointed a new dean to the program where Kader worked, and Kader alleged she received poor reviews from the new dean based upon her national origin. She reported this to the president of the university.
When Kader’s visa was about to expire, she sought assistance from HSSU to obtain a new visa. HSSU agreed to submit the paperwork she needed for this new visa and did provide the initial information needed. When Kader had not heard about whether her visa was granted, she contacted the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services and learned it had requested additional information from HSSU, but had not received a response.
When Kader contacted HSSU to inquire about the additional information requested, it denied receiving any such request. HSSU further informed Kader that her visa application had been denied and she had to leave HSSU within 30 days. Kader requested a work leave of absence, which HSSU did not provide. Three days later, Kader again requested a leave of absence from HSSU but received no response. Thereafter, Kader received a letter from HSSU that it would not appeal the denial of her visa application.
During the trial, the court gave the jury disjunctive verdict directing instructions, instructing them to rule in Kader’s favor if: (1) the jury found HSSU failed to do one or more of five listed acts, one of which was whether HSSU denied Kader a work leave of absence; (2) Kader’s national origin or complaints of discrimination were a contributing factor to HSSU’s failure to do any of those acts, and (3) such failure damaged Kader. The jury returned verdicts in Kader’s favor on her claims of national origin discrimination and retaliation.
In reversing the trial court, the appellate court relied on authority holding that “[i]n order for disjunctive verdict directing instructions to be deemed appropriate, each alternative must be supported by substantial evidence.” The court held that the denial of a work leave of absence was not supported by substantial evidence “because the record shows that, at the time she was denied leave, Dr. Kader did not have a valid visa authorizing her to work in the United States, and, therefore, HSSU could not legally employ her.” Therefore, the court declined to find that the denial of employment or a work leave of absence to one who no longer has a valid visa is discriminatory or retaliatory conduct.
“[A]s there is no way to determine upon which disjunctive theory the jury chose, we cannot rule out the possibility that the jury improperly returned its verdict upon a finding that HSSU discriminated against Dr. Kader by denying her a work leave of absence, which misdirected or confused the jury,” explained the court. Accordingly, the judgment was reversed and remanded for a new trial.
For more on this subject, see our earlier blog post titled “Employers Know That Instructions Matter.”