WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court Friday reversed a jury’s decision awarding more than $10,000 in damages to a former sight-seeing tour conductor.
James Gibson, who is black, claimed that Old Town Trolley in Washington was angry at him for filing an age and race discrimination suit against it in January 1996. In retaliation, he said the company refused to fill out employment reference forms he needed to get a new job.
But a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday that “no reasonable jury” could have found that the trolley company had acted in retaliation against Gibson.
“There is no evidence in any way, shape or form that Mr. Gibson was retaliated against,” said Ron Jarashow, the attorney who represented Old Town Trolley.
Gibson, who was hired at age 58, was laid off from Old Town Trolley in the fall of 1993 after three years of working for the sight-seeing company.
“Gibson felt that he had been selected for layoff because of his race and age,” according to court documents. He filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and, in January 1996, he filed a federal lawsuit.
In the meantime, he applied for a job with Fairfax County school system as a bus driver. He tried three times to secure a reference from Old Town Trolley, but only received one letter in return, saying that his former supervisor no longer worked at the company.
He eventually got the county bus driving job without the references.
A federal district court jury in Greenbelt threw out Gibson’s claim that Old Town Trolley discriminated against him when it fired him. But the jury did award him $700 in compensatory damages and $10,000 in punitive damages, agreeing that the failure to return the reference forms was retaliatory.
Jarashow said Old Town Trolley appealed the decision because, “There was no basis for that $700 reward.” He said the tour company “just does not give references,” because it has too many employees and that would take up too much time.
The appeals court agreed with Jarashow and reversed the decision.
“No reasonable jury could have found that Old Town Trolley retaliated against Gibson because he filed an EEOC complaint,” Chief Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson wrote for the court.
The decision went on to say that, at best, Gibson had only shown that Old Town Trolley was sloppy in handling its correspondence, not that it was retaliating against him.