Sergeants Win Age Discrimination Case, Lose Most Of Their Damage Award

Michael Springstun and Francis Hogan are sergeants with the Hollywood, Florida Police Department. When Springstun and Hogan were repeatedly passed over for promotion to the position of lieutenant even though they had higher test scores than those who were promoted, they brought a lawsuit under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act. A jury found Springstun and Hogan each entitled to $83,544 in back wages and $1 million as compensatory damages for mental anguish, loss of dignity, and other tangible and intangible injuries.

The City appealed, arguing there was no evidence to support the jury’s verdict, and that in any case, the amount of damages awarded by the jury was excessive. The Florida Court of Appeals found that there was evidence sufficient to support the jury’s verdict, but agreed with the City that the damages awarded were excessive.

The Court found that Springstun and Hogan presented the necessary “prima facie” case by showing that they were within the protected class (they were over the age of 40), they were qualified for the positions, and they were passed over in favor of younger employees. The Court also found that the City advanced a legitimate non-discriminatory explanation for passing over Springstun and Hogan – the Police Chief’s opinion that the promoted officers would be better leaders, better managers and administrators.

The case came down to whether Springstun and Hogan produced enough evidence that the City’s rationale was merely a pretext, and that age discrimination was at the heart of the City’s decision to pass them over. The Court found that such evidence existed, particularly in the Chief’s comments that the two sergeants “were too old.” In addition, the Court cited the testimony of other members of the command staff as to how the sergeants were moving into “the retirement phase of their careers,” and that both Springstun and Hogan “were too old for a lieutenant’s position.”

The Court was more sympathetic to the City’s argument that the $1 million award to each of Springstun and Hogan for non-economic damages was excessive. The Court found that the award “shocked the judicial conscience and required a substantial reduction.” Citing other cases in which courts reduced non-economic damages to as low as $2,500, the Court found that the $1 million awards were “grossly excessive,” and remanded the case to the trial court for an award of non-economic damages no greater than $150,000.

City of Hollywood v. Hogan, 2008 WL 2261504 (Fla.App. 2008).

This article appears in the September 2008 issue