Monday, October 6, 2014
C.A. Upholds Verdict for Prison Psychologist in Race-Bias Case
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
The Third District Court of Appeal has affirmed a judgment in favor of a prison psychologist awarded nearly $1 million in damages by jurors who found she was terminated, at least in part, because she is African-American, and that there were no legitimate reasons for firing her.
While the evidence in the case was “surprisingly murky,” Presiding Justice Vance Raye wrote Thursday in an unpublished opinion, jurors were entitled to credit circumstantial evidence supporting the plaintiff, Terralynn Renfro, and to infer from the blatant contradictions in the testimony of the state’s witnesses that they were lying.
At a 2011 trial, the jury in Sacramento Superior Court awarded Renfro $945,480 after hearing testimony regarding her July 19, 2007 termination from her contract psychologist position at Mule Creek State Prison, 40 miles southeast of Sacramento.
Jurors found, 9-3, that race was a motivating factor in the firing, and 10-2 that there were no valid, non-discriminatory reasons for the firing.
Evidence of Bias
Raye acknowledged that the evidence of bias was “thin” and indirect, but said it was sufficient to support the verdict. “There is no question that some of the department’s witnesses lied at trial by contradicting each other on key facts,” he explained.
He noted that while there was no doubt Renfro was fired on the day in question, it was unclear who actually made the decision. The prison’s chief medical officer, an African American who had ultimate responsibility, wasn’t present that day and testified that he didn’t know Renfro had been fired until after it was done; his assistant gave contradictory testimony that her boss had in fact approved of the termination, and that she had passed along the approval to the chief psychologist, who actually fired the plaintiff; and the chief psychologist did not testify.
The plaintiff’s supervisor testified that she was on medical leave at the time of the firing, and that only the chief medical officer had authority to fire Renfro.
The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation argued that Renfro was fired for insubordination and violating prison protocol, not because she is black, although she was the only African-American psychologist working at the prison at the time. Witnesses testified that she had refused to lead a substance abuse group; that she had started an inmate library without her supervisor’s approval and left inmates there unsupervised; and that she had several contentious interactions with the supervisor, about the library and other subjects.
Renfro testified that the charges were bogus, and presented documentary evidence that contradicted some of the assertions.
Raye said it was up to the jury to resolve the conflict, especially in light of the “pernicious pattern” of contradictory testimony by the department’s witnesses.
“If those who were, or should have been, most intimately involved in the decision to fire plaintiff obfuscated their roles and told inconsistent stories,” the presiding justice wrote, “the jury could reasonably infer that their motives were not what they claimed and the testimony they provided was incredible.”
He went on to say:
“While the evidence was not overwhelming, we simply cannot say it was based on mere speculation or guesswork. Discrimination does not always present as in a scene from To Kill a Mockingbird or The Birth of a Nation.”
Raye also rejected the contention that a new trial was required because the trial judge gave a standard jury instruction that was later revised in response to a Supreme Court decision.
The judge told jurors that to establish a prima facie case of discrimination, the plaintiff had to show that race was “a motivating reason” for the firing. The same instruction led to the reversal of a verdict for the plaintiff in Harris v. City of Santa Monica (2013) 56 Cal.4th 203, where the court held that the burden is on plaintiff to show that the plaintiff’s membership in a protected class was a “substantial motivating reason” for an adverse employment action.
The Court of Appeal has, in some subsequent cases, relied on Harris in overturning plaintiffs’ verdicts. But that need not be done in Renfro’s case, he said, given the jury’s specific finding that the department lacked “a legitimate and sufficient non-discriminatory reason to discharge Dr. Renfro that, standing alone, would have induced [the department] to make the same decision.”
He noted that it was the department’s lawyers who requested that issue be included on the special verdict form.
Thursday’s ruling may not be the final word on the case.
“We disagree with the verdict and we’re exploring our options,” Corrections spokesman Bill Sessa said Friday, declining further comment.
Renfro, of Fairfield, had worked in several prisons since 2000 but was blocked from getting another prison job after her firing, said her attorney, Mary-Alice Coleman of Davis. She now is in private practice.
The case is Renfro v. Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, C070371.
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