Appeals Court Upholds Position of Team Owner in Harassment Case

May 8, 2004

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the finding of a jury, which concluded that the owner of a Salt Lake City baseball team did not violate Title VII and sexually harass a prospective job candidate, or create a hostile work environment.
The plaintiff, Heather Alwine, had alleged that she was sexually harassed during two job interviews for a general manager position for the Buzz. After losing on all of her claims against club owner Joseph J. Buzas, she filed a renewed motion for judgment, or alternatively, for a new trial.
Both motions were denied, and the appellate court upheld that ruling. Additionally, the court determined that oral arguments would not assist the outcome of this appeal.
Two complaints centered on the court’s restriction of a claim of a hostile work environment and whether this led to the direct exclusion of relevant testimony and evidence. In reviewing the district court’s action with respect to the hostile work environment claims, the appellate court found that there was no abuse of discretion.
Initially, the district court did not allow the claim. However, the defendants moved for and received a directed verdict on the hostile work environment claim. The district court held for the defendants, citing that since the plaintiff’s claim was a quid pro quo sexual harassment claim, it did not fall under the category of hostile work environment. Additionally, the court noted that the plaintiff failed to mention the hostile work environment in a pretrial order.
The district court changed its position on the hostile work environment claim the next day and allowed the jury to receive an instruction on this theory. The plaintiff argued that this was too late because at that point in the trial all of the evidence was in and she was not able to present evidence of this claim in full.
The appellate court noted that the district court did not abuse its discretion to restrict certain types of evidence. Although the plaintiff argued that this evidence was crucial to her hostile work environment claim, the appellate court found that this evidence was not allowed because it was deemed “terribly prejudicial” and to be of “slight” probative value.
The facts in the case were hotly disputed. The plaintiff contends that she met with Buzas for two different job interviews and that on both occasions he acted inappropriately. She alleged, specifically, that the defendant touched her under the table at a restaurant, asked her to come back to his hotel room with him, and snapped her bra strap, among other things. Moreover, she stated on the record that it was her understanding that in order to receive the general manager position she would have to enter into a personal relationship with Buzas, including sex. Ultimately, Alwine was not offered the general manager position.
Buzas had his own version of the facts and offered an explanation as to why Alwine was not given the job. First, he claimed that the Buzz had a policy against employees dating ballplayers and that Alwine had come to the second interview to rekindle a relationship with one of the Buzz’s ballplayers. Additionally, he argued that Alwine was not hired because she was not qualified to be general manager of the Buzz.
Another claim that was brought by the plaintiff on this appeal focused on improper argument by defense counsel. Ms. Alwine argued that the errors were so egregious that a new trial should be required. The plaintiff stated that defense counsel improperly focused on her sexual history with one of the ballplayers of the Buzz. The appellate court noted that this information was important because it was directly linked to the Buzz’s policy prohibiting employees from dating ballplayers. The court found that the admission of this type of evidence did not rise to the level of reversible error.
Finally, Alwine complained that reversal was required because Buzas did not testify at trial. The plaintiff argued that since Buzas was the sole decision-maker, there was no evidence presented of a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for not hiring her.
Reviewing this issue de novo the appellate court held that reversal is appropriate “only if the evidence points but one way and is susceptible to no reasonable inferences supporting the party for whom the jury found.” The appellate court wrote that since Alwine was not able to present a prima facie case of sexual harassment, this was not reversible error. Moreover, the court noted that the defendants did present evidence that Alwine was not qualified for the position.
Buzas died on March 9, 2003, before the appellate court reached its decision. Alwine v. Buzas et al., No. 02-4185
10th Cir., 2/27/04
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiff) Richard Armstrong, Richman & Richman, Salt Lake City, UT. Mary Anne Q. Wood, Larry S. Jenkins, Wood & Crapo, Salt Lake City, UT. Eric T. Johnson, Ballard, Spahr, Andrews & Ingersoll, Salt Lake City, UT. (for defendants) Robert L. Stevens, George T. Naegle, Mark L. McCarty, Martha Knudson, Richards, Brandt, Miller & Nelson, Salt Lake City, UT.


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