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Vincent Romandia v. Engineered Polymer Solutions

May 11, 2012

VINCENT ROMANDIA, PLAINTIFF AND APPELLANT,
v.
ENGINEERED POLYMER SOLUTIONS, INC. ET AL., DEFENDANTS AND APPELLANTS.



(Super. Ct. No. 07AS04926)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Robie , Acting P. J.

Romandia v. Engineered Polymer Solutions

CA3

NOT TO BE PUBLISHED

California Rules of Court, rule 8.1115(a), prohibits courts and parties from citing or relying on opinions not certified for publication or ordered published, except as specified by rule 8.1115(b). This opinion has not been certified for publication or ordered published for purposes of rule 8.1115.

After his employment was terminated for what his employer asserted was "conduct unbecoming a supervisor," plaintiff Vincent Romandia (who is Mexican-American and was 47 years old at the time of trial) sued his former employer, defendant Engineered Polymer Solutions, Inc. (Valspar),*fn1 and his former supervisor, defendant Jeremy Pond, for discrimination and defamation. A jury found Romandia's race was not a motivating reason for the termination, but his age was, and the jury also found that both defendants had defamed Romandia because the stated reason for his termination was false. The jury awarded Romandia over $1 million in compensatory damages and $1.5 million in punitive damages.

Defendants moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) and a new trial, claiming insufficiency of the evidence. The trial court granted JNOV on the claim for punitive damages but denied it on the underlying claims for age discrimination and defamation. As for the new trial motion, however, the trial court granted it on both of the underlying causes of action and the claim for punitive damages, finding that Romandia's termination "was not substantially motivated by a discriminatory animus based on [his] age" and that "the stated grounds for [Romandia]'s termination were . . . true, or reasonably believed to be true."

Both Romandia and defendants have appealed. On defendants' appeal from the partial denial of their JNOV motion and Romandia's appeal from the partial granting of that motion, we conclude that defendants have shown no error in the trial court's determination that there was substantial evidence to support the jury's verdict in favor of Romandia on the age discrimination and defamation claims, but Romandia is correct that the trial court did err in granting JNOV as to the punitive damages claim. Accordingly, we will partially affirm and partially reverse the trial court's order on that motion.

On Romandia's appeal from the granting of the new trial motion, we find no error. Accordingly, we will affirm the trial court's order on that motion in its entirety.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

As the trial court explained in its order on the motions for JNOV and new trial, Romandia "had been an at-will employee at Valspar for several years prior to his final year, during which he had received positive performance reviews, promotions and awards, including a prestigious award given to only a few out of the thousands of Valspar employees. During the period of [Romandia]'s advancement and success at Valspar, his primary supervisor was David Binley. Mr. Binley left the position in which he was supervising [Romandia] about a year before [Romandia]'s termination, at which time another Valspar employee named Jeremy Pond became plant manager and [Romandia]'s supervisor. Pond was approximately 35 years old during the events at issue in this case, and [Romandia] is approximately ten years older than Pond.

"In the fall of 2006, several weeks before [Romandia]'s termination, Pond conducted a periodic review of [Romandia]'s work performance, which was generally positive. [Romandia] testified at trial that Pond was using the wrong form for the review and that [Romandia] therefore interrupted the review meeting, asking that Pond conduct the review at a later date, with the correct form, and that [Romandia] have an opportunity to fill out a self-evaluation form for the review as well. The review was never resumed at a later date. [Romandia] was terminated a few weeks later, after an incident that took place after work offsite, involving [Romandia] and several other Valspar employees. At trial, [Romandia] admitted Pond's scoring on the (incorrect) form was generally fair, though not as high as Binley had been previously scoring [Romandia], and not as high as [Romandia] would have scored himself.

"At the time of his termination, [Romandia] was level II plant supervisor in a Valspar facility in which paint is manufactured. [Romandia] desired to become a level III supervisor, but Pond turned down that request shortly before [Romandia]'s termination, saying that [Romandia] did not meet the criteria for the promotion."

At trial, Romandia testified to several incidents between him and Pond that involved Romandia's age. Romandia testified that the first incident occurred in the summer, when the temperature was 103 or 104 degrees and he was playing baseball. When he told Pond he had a double header, Pond told him he "better be careful; the heat could be bad for someone [Romandia's] age." Romandia thought Pond was joking.

Sometime thereafter, Romandia and Pond had a conversation about staying in shape. When Romandia told Pond how many "reps" he could do "on a certain weight," Pond told him he "better be careful. [He] could get hurt at [his] age lifting that much weight." This time, the comment made Romandia a little agitated.

On another occasion, the company softball team had a game against a senior team (50 to 60 years old), and Pond told Romandia he should be on that team.

Romandia additionally claimed that at the periodic review in the fall of 2006, he told Pond that with his limited education, his career was "basically stalled" at Valspar, and he handed Pond a completed application for educational assistance from Valspar. Pond asked Romandia why he would want to go back to school "at [his] age." Agitated, Romandia responded, "So I could take your job." Pond chuckled. Thereafter, however, Romandia did not get any response from Pond about the application, and it was not among the documents Valspar produced in connection with the litigation.

The termination of Romandia's employment came in the wake of an incident outside of work, which the trial court described as follows:

"On December 15, 2006, in the afternoon following a work shift, not long after Pond had given [Romandia] his interrupted performance review,[*fn2 ] [Romandia] and some other Valspar employees were at a bar near work called the Depot Cafe. The events that transpired at the Depot Cafe are disputed, but it is undisputed that several Valspar employees, including [Romandia], drank some beer, and had discussions about who could best perform certain job tasks. One version of events, asserted by Defendants, is that [Romandia] became inappropriately confrontational with a fellow employee (Joseph Ramirez), suggested that they step outside, and, either on the way out the door or in the parking lot, [Romandia] took a 'swing' at Ramirez, after which fellow employees broke up the altercation, and everyone left. Another version, asserted by [Romandia] is that Ramirez was drunk, but [Romandia] was not, [Romandia] suggested that Ramirez get some fresh air, at which point they and others went outside to do so, whereupon Ramirez made an aggressive advance toward [Romandia] who merely held up his hand defensively to deflect Ramirez, after which everyone left. It is undisputed that Ramirez was intoxicated and that [Romandia] had been drinking beer, although [Romandia] testified that he was not drunk. It is also undisputed that Ramirez, back home later that evening, punched a wall and broke his hand, causing him to miss several weeks of work."

According to Romandia, on December 19 Pond asked him about the incident at the Depot Cafe, Romandia told him what happened, and Pond said, "Okay." Later that evening, however, Pond called Romandia at home and told him not to report to work the next day and that Pond would call him and let him know when to come to work. Based on his experience at Valspar, Romandia believed he was going to be terminated.

On December 20, Pond called Romandia and told him to come in the next day. Romandia went in the next morning and met with Pond, while Kimberly Watson, Valspar's regional human resources manager, participated by telephone. At that time, Romandia was informed that his employment was being terminated for "conduct unbecoming a supervisor."

In October 2007, Romandia commenced this action by filing a complaint against Valspar for discrimination and defamation. He claimed Valspar had unlawfully discriminated against him by terminating his employment because of his age and his race and Valspar and Pond had defamed him by asserting that he was terminated for "conduct unbecoming a supervisor." The case was tried to a jury in August and September 2009. The jury found Romandia's race was not a motivating reason for his termination, but his age was, and also found that both defendants had defamed Romandia because the stated reason for his termination was false. The jury awarded Romandia over $1 million in compensatory damages and $1.5 million in punitive damages.

Defendants moved for JNOV and a new trial, with the latter motion based primarily on insufficiency of the evidence. The trial court granted the JNOV motion on the claim for punitive damages but denied it on the underlying claims for age discrimination and defamation. As for the new trial motion, however, the trial court granted it on both of the underlying causes of action and the claim for punitive damages, finding that Romandia's termination "was not substantially motivated by a discriminatory animus based on [his] age" and that "the stated grounds for [Romandia]'s termination were . . . true, or reasonably believed to be true." Both sides timely appealed.

DISCUSSION

I

The Jury's Verdict -- Race Discrimination

In his appeal, one of Romandia's arguments is that the jury's verdict against him on his race discrimination claim should be reversed because substantial evidence supported a contrary finding -- in other words, there was substantial evidence to support his claim that he was terminated based on his race.

This argument need not detain us long. "It is an elementary . . . principle of law, that when a verdict is attacked as being unsupported, the power of the appellate court begins and ends with a determination as to whether there is any substantial evidence, contradicted or uncontradicted, which will support the conclusion reached by the jury. When two or more inferences can be reasonably deduced from the facts, the reviewing court is without power to substitute its deductions for those of the trial court." (Crawford v. Southern Pacific Co. (1935) 3 Cal.2d 427, 429.) What that means here is that for Romandia to establish his claim of race discrimination as against the jury's verdict, the evidence must have been such that we "can say that there is no substantial conflict on the facts, and that from the facts reasonable men can draw but one inference, which inference points unerringly to" the conclusion that Romandia was terminated because of his race. (Ibid.)

Romandia points to no such evidence. By his own admission, the evidence to which he points at best "provide[s] substantial evidence of defendants' racial animus and discrimination." But we cannot overturn the jury's verdict just because there might have been substantial evidence on which a finding contrary to the jury's verdict could have been premised. Instead, as noted, to interfere with the jury's finding against Romandia on his race discrimination claim, we would have to find that the only reasonable conclusion based on all the evidence was that Romandia was terminated because of his race. Not even Romandia contends this is so. Accordingly, his challenge to the jury's verdict is without merit.

II

The Motion For JNOV

In their appeal, defendants contend the trial court erred in denying their motion for JNOV on Romandia's claims for age discrimination and defamation. In his appeal, Romandia contends the trial court erred in granting the motion for JNOV on his claim for punitive damages. After setting forth the standard of review, we address these arguments in ...


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