Appeals court upholds jury verdict in case against local air agency

On Jan. 11, the U.S. Appeals Court, Fourth District, upheld a jury’s judgment that the board of the Western North Carolina Air Quality Agency discriminated against Melanie Pitrolo when it passed over her for a key promotion in 2005. The ruling overturns an earlier U.S. District Court finding that had reversed the jury and allowed Buncombe County — which oversees the agency — to compel Pitrolo to pay its legal costs. Now, Pitrolo may get to recoup her legal costs from the county.

In 2005, Pitrolo initiated a discrimination complaint alleging that the air agency, its board members and Buncombe County officials violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by illegally considering her gender in the process of picking an interim director after former director Bob Camby’s retirement, Xpress reported in the article “Pollution, Politics and Gender” (Oct. 28, 2009). Two years after the complaint was filed, now-retired U.S. District Court Judge Lacy Thornburg found in favor of the county and agency, saying no discrimination had occurred. But the U.S. Appeals Court overruled him, requiring the case to go to trial. It did, and in 2007, a jury of five women and three men determined that gender was a factor in the hiring decision but that the board would have hired Brigman in any case. The jury awarded no damages.

But Thornburg in turn overruled the jury in August 2009, agreeing with Buncombe’s request that Pitrolo pay the county and agency’s court costs.

Pitrolo appealed, and on Jan. 11, the Appeals Court concluded, “We reinstate the jury verdict and judgment in favor of Pitrolo, and we remand the matter for reconsideration of Pitrolo’s post-trial motion for declaratory relief and attorney fees and costs.”

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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6 thoughts on “Appeals court upholds jury verdict in case against local air agency

  1. Don Yelton

    There is justice. The judge retired and this does prove that the good old boy system can be beat. Good job Melanie and please Margaret follow through to the award of fees and damages.

    This should come out of Wanda’s check period.

  2. http://www.leagle.com/xmlResult.aspx?xmldoc=In FCO 20110111070.xml&docbase=CSLWAR3-2007-CURR

    PITROLO v. COUNTY OF BUNCOMBE
    MELANIE PITROLO, Plaintiff-Appellant,
    v.
    COUNTY OF BUNCOMBE, NC; BRITT LOVIN; DEAN KAHL; LOYD KIRK; VONNA CLONINGER; WESTERN NORTH CAROLINA REGIONAL AIR QUALITY AGENCY BOARD OF DIRECTORS; WESTERN NORTH CAROLINA REGIONAL AIR QUALITY AGENCY, Defendants-Appellees.
    No. 09-2051.
    United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit.
    Submitted: November 24, 2010.
    Decided: January 11, 2011.
    Michael G. Wimer, WIMER & JOBE, Asheville, North Carolina, for Appellant.
    Thomas J. Doughton, Amy L. Rich, DOUGHTON & HART, PLLC, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for Appellees.
    Before TRAXLER, Chief Judge, and WILKINSON and SHEDD, Circuit Judges.
    Vacated and remanded by unpublished opinion. Judge Shedd wrote the opinion, in which Chief Judge Traxler and Judge Wilkinson joined.
    Unpublished opinions are not binding precedent in this circuit.
    SHEDD, Circuit Judge.
    Melanie Pitrolo filed this action under Title VII claiming that the County of Buncombe, the Western North Carolina Regional Air Quality Agency, the Agency Board of Directors, Britt Lovin, Dean Kahl, Loyd Kirk, and Vonna Cloninger (collectively “Buncombe County”) failed to promote her to the position of Interim Director because of her gender. After a jury decided in Pitrolo’s favor, the district court granted Buncombe County’s renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law and entered an amended judgment in favor of Buncombe County and ordering Pitrolo to pay Buncombe County’s costs. Pitrolo now appeals. For the following reasons, we vacate the district court’s amended judgment, reinstate the jury verdict, and remand the case.
    I.
    This is Pitrolo’s second appeal in this case. In the first appeal, we vacated the grant of summary judgment in favor of Buncombe County on Pitrolo’s Title VII gender discrimination claim and remanded that claim for further proceedings. Pitrolo v. County of Buncombe, No. 07-2145, 2009 WL 1010634 (4th Cir. Mar. 11, 2009). In the summary judgment record, Pitrolo had testified that, shortly after an Agency Board of Directors meeting regarding the Interim Director position, Agency Director Bob Camby reported to her that there was opposition to her becoming the future leader of the Agency because of her age and gender. We held that Camby’s statement to Pitrolo was admissible evidence as a “party-opponent admission” under Federal Rule of Evidence 801(d)(2). Importantly, we found the statement constitutes direct evidence of gender discrimination sufficient to defeat summary judgment.
    On remand, a jury found that gender was a motivating factor in Buncombe County’s decision not to promote Pitrolo but also found that Buncombe County would have denied her the promotion in the absence of consideration of her gender. Accordingly, the jury did not award Pitrolo damages. The district court denied Pitrolo’s post-trial motion for declaratory relief, attorney fees and costs, and granted Buncombe County’s renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law.* The district court entered an amended judgment dismissing Pitrolo’s action with prejudice and ordering that Buncombe County recover costs from Pitrolo.
    II.
    We review de novo a district court’s ruling on a motion for judgment as a matter of law. Dennis v. Columbia Colleton Med. Ctr., 290 F.3d 639, 644-45 (4th Cir. 2002). Importantly, a “Rule 50(b) motion for judgment as a matter of law follows the same standard as a Rule 56 motion for summary judgment.” Id. at 644. Thus, when a jury has returned a verdict, the district court may grant a Rule 50(b) motion for judgment as a matter of law only if, “viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the non-moving party (and in support of the jury’s verdict) and drawing every legitimate inference in that party’s favor, the only conclusion a reasonable jury could have reached is one in favor of the moving party.” Int’l Ground Transp., v. Mayor & City Council of Ocean City, 475 F.3d 214, 218-19 (4th Cir. 2007). If reasonable minds could differ, we must affirm the jury’s verdict. Dennis, 290 F.3d at 645. In drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-movant, a court may not weigh the evidence or assess the credibility of the witnesses. Id.
    We find that Camby’s statement is sufficient evidence to support the jury’s verdict. The law of this case is that Camby’s statement constitutes direct evidence of gender discrimination sufficient to defeat summary judgment. Thus, at a minimum, the jury could reasonably conclude from Camby’s statement that Pitrolo’s gender was a motivating factor in Buncombe County’s decision not to hire her. Although the district court may differ with the jury’s conclusions, Rule 50(b) does not permit the court to weigh the evidence or assess the credibility of the witnesses — to do so is to usurp the fact-finding role of the jury. Therefore, the district court erred in finding that Pitrolo had not presented sufficient evidence to support the jury’s finding and that a reasonable jury could not have inferred from Camby’s statement that gender was a motivating factor in Buncombe County’s decision not to promote Pitrolo.
    We note that the district court denied Pitrolo’s post-trial motion for attorney fees and costs because, under the amended judgment, she did not prevail on her “mixed-motive” claim. However, with the reinstatement of the jury’s verdict, Pitrolo is now the prevailing party. See Hill v. Lockheed Martin Logistics Mgmt., 354 F.3d 277, 284 (4th Cir. 2004) (en banc), cert. dismissed, 543 U.S. 1132 (2005) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(m)). As such, she is entitled to seek “declaratory relief, injunctive relief, and attorney’s fees and costs demonstrated to be directly attributable” to her mixed-motive claim. Id.
    III.
    For the foregoing reasons, we vacate the district court’s amended judgment and order granting Buncombe County’s motion for judgment as a matter of law, ordering that Buncombe County recover costs from Pitrolo, and denying Pitrolo’s motion for declaratory relief, attorney fees and costs. We reinstate the jury verdict and judgment in favor of Pitrolo, and we remand the matter for reconsideration of Pitrolo’s post-trial motion for declaratory relief and attorney fees and costs in light of our holding. We dispense with oral argument because the facts and legal contentions are adequately presented in the materials before the court and argument would not aid the decisional process.
    VACATED AND REMANDED.
    Footnotes

    * Buncombe County moved for judgment as a matter of law at the end of the trial, arguing that Camby’s statement was not sufficient evidence to support a jury verdict in favor of Pitrolo. In denying that motion, the district court stated: “[Y]ou’re fully aware . . . two judges previously were of the opinion that that was not an adequate basis to keep the case alive, but three judges disagreed, so I’m going to keep it alive for them to review again if the jury verdict is adverse to the position of the plaintiff in this case and give them an opportunity to review it. So I’m going to let the jury decide that tomorrow, and we’ll all see at that time what they come up with.” J.A. 544.
    Back to Reference

  3. The gender discrimination is, sadly, just the tip of the iceberg here. Evidence came out through this case that CIBO — the conservative, anti-regulatory local business lobby — pushed for Brigman’s selection, and the air-agency board (newly packed with CIBO members) complied. See the Margaret’s 2009 article for details.

  4. As if 50 toxic sites around the county weren’t enough…..lax oversight by cornies and unfortunately some of our paid officials
    (as pointed out in the verdict statement)…are guaranteeing your children and grand children will have even more toxicity to deal with on a daily basis, as the toxicity is allowed to grow and grow.

    Why do I say this??? Well the way it works in this county is to stack boards with cronies or people too stupid to know what the role of a Board is, (oversight, accountability to the public trust, and fiduciary watch dogging . And if the powers that be stacked the Air Quality Board, you can bet other intrusted entities that regulate or are important to ground and air quality , have been stacked the same way also.

    http://www.mountainx.com/news/2011/011211hidden-hazards Buncomb’s abandoned toxic waste sites.
    http://www.mountainx.com/news/2011/wnc_air_pollution_control_agency_meets_jan._10_to_consider_progress_energy_

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