Cases: Agency and Employment Law

Barbano v. Madison County

922 F.2d 139 (2d Cir. 1990)

Factual Background

At the Madison County (New York State) Veterans Service Agency, the position of director became vacant. The County Board of Supervisors created a committee of five men to hold interviews for the position. The committee interviewed Maureen E. Barbano and four others. When she entered the interview room, she heard someone say, “Oh, another woman.” At the beginning of the interview, Donald Greene said he would not consider “some woman” for the position. Greene also asked Barbano some personal questions about her family plans and whether her husband would mind if she transported male veterans. Ms. Barbano answered that the questions were irrelevant and discriminatory. However, Greene replied that the questions were relevant because he did not want to hire a woman who would get pregnant and quit. Another committee member, Newbold, agreed that the questions were relevant, and no committee member said the questions were not relevant.

None of the interviewers rebuked Greene or objected to the questions, and none of them told Barbano that she need not answer them. Barbano did state that if she decided to have a family she would take no more time off than medically necessary. Greene once again asked whether Barbano’s husband would object to her “running around the country with men” and said he would not want his wife to do it. Barbano said she was not his wife. The interview concluded after Barbano asked some questions about insurance.

After interviewing several other candidates, the board hired a man. Barbano sued the county for sex discrimination in violation of Title VII, and the district court held in her favor. She was awarded $55,000 in back pay, prejudgment interest, and attorney’s fees. Madison County appealed the judgment of Federal District Judge McAvoy; Barbano cross-appealed, asking for additional damages.

The court then found that Barbano had established a prima facie case of discrimination under Title VII, thus bringing into issue the appellants’ purported reasons for not hiring her. The appellants provided four reasons why they chose Wagner over Barbano, which the district court rejected either as unsupported by the record or as a pretext for discrimination in light of Barbano’s interview. The district court then found that because of Barbano’s education and experience in social services, the appellants had failed to prove that absent the discrimination, they still would not have hired Barbano. Accordingly, the court awarded Barbano back pay, prejudgment interest, and attorney’s fees. Subsequently, the court denied Barbano’s request for front pay and a mandatory injunction ordering her appointment as director upon the next vacancy. This appeal and cross-appeal followed.


Appellants argue that the district court erred in finding that Greene’s statements during the interview showed that the Board discriminated in making the hiring decision, and that there was no direct evidence of discrimination by the Board, making it improper to require that appellants prove that they would not have hired Barbano absent the discrimination. Barbano in turn challenges the adequacy of the relief awarded to her by the district court.

A. Discrimination

At the outset, we note that Judge McAvoy’s opinion predated Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228, 109 S. Ct. 1775, 104 L. Ed. 2d 268 (1990), in which the Supreme Court made clear that a “pretext” case should be analyzed differently from a “mixed motives” case. Judge McAvoy, not having the benefit of the Court’s opinion in Price Waterhouse, did not clearly distinguish between the two types of cases in analyzing the alleged discrimination. For purposes of this appeal, we do not think it is crucial how the district court categorized the case. Rather, we need only concern ourselves with whether the district court’s findings of fact are supported by the record and whether the district court applied the proper legal standards in light of its factual findings.

Whether the case is one of pretext or mixed motives, the plaintiff bears the burden of persuasion on the issue of whether gender played a part in the employment decision. Appellants contend that Barbano did not sustain her burden of proving discrimination because the only evidence of discrimination involved Greene’s statements during the interview, and Greene was an elected official over whom the other members of the Board exercised no control. Thus, appellants maintain, since the hiring decision was made by the 19-member board, evidence of discrimination by one member does not establish that the Board discriminated in making the hiring decision.

We agree that discrimination by one individual does not necessarily imply that a collective decision-making body of which the individual is a member also discriminated. However, the record before us supports the district court’s finding that the Board discriminated in making the hiring decision.

First, there is little doubt that Greene’s statements during the interview were discriminatory. He said he would not consider “some woman” for the position. His questioning Barbano about whether she would get pregnant and quit was also discriminatory, since it was unrelated to a bona fide occupational qualification. Similarly, Greene’s questions about whether Barbano’s husband would mind if she had to “run around the country with men,” and that he would not want his wife to do it, were discriminatory, since once again the questions were unrelated to bona fide occupational qualifications.

Moreover, the import of Greene’s discriminatory questions was substantial, since apart from one question about her qualifications, none of the interviewers asked Barbano about other areas that allegedly formed the basis for selecting a candidate. Thus, Greene’s questioning constituted virtually the entire interview, and so the district court properly found that the interview itself was discriminatory.

Next, given the discriminatory tenor of the interview, and the acquiescence of the other Committee members to Greene’s line of questioning, it follows that the judge could find that those present at the interview, and not merely Greene, discriminated against Barbano. Judge McAvoy pointed out that the Chairman of the Committee, Newbold, thought Greene’s discriminatory questions were relevant. Significantly, Barbano protested that Greene’s questions were discriminatory, but no one agreed with her or told her that she need not answer. Indeed, no one even attempted to steer the interview in another direction. This knowing and informed toleration of discriminatory statements by those participating in the interview constitutes evidence of discrimination by all those present. That each member was independently elected to the Board does not mean that the Committee itself was unable to control the course of the interview. The Committee had a choice of how to conduct the interview, and the court could find that the Committee exercised that choice in a plainly discriminatory fashion.

This discrimination directly affected the hiring decision. At the end of the interviewing process, the interviewers evaluated the candidates, and on that basis submitted a recommendation as to which candidate to hire for the position. “Evaluation does not occur in a vacuum. By definition, when evaluating a candidate to fill a vacant position, one compares that candidate against other eligible candidates.” Appellants stipulated that Barbano was qualified for the position. Again, because Judge McAvoy could find that the evaluation of Barbano was biased by gender discrimination, the judge could also find that the Committee’s recommendation to hire Wagner, which was the result of a weighing of the relative merits of Barbano, Wagner and the other eligible candidates, was necessarily tainted by discrimination.

The Board in turn unanimously accepted the Committee’s recommendation to hire Wagner, and so the Board’s hiring decision was made in reliance upon a discriminatory recommendation. The Supreme Court in Hopkins v. Price Waterhouse found that a collective decision-making body can discriminate by relying upon discriminatory recommendations, and we are persuaded that the reasoning in that case applies here as well.

In Hopkins’ case against Price Waterhouse, Ann Hopkins, a candidate for partnership at the accounting firm of Price Waterhouse, alleged that she was refused admission as a partner because of sex discrimination. Hopkins’s evidence of discrimination consisted largely of evaluations made by various partners. Price Waterhouse argued that such evidence did not prove that its internal Policy Board, which was the effective decision-maker as to partnership in that case, had discriminated. The Court rejected that argument and found the evidence did establish discrimination:

Hopkins showed that the partnership solicited evaluations from all of the firm’s partners; that it generally relied very heavily on such evaluations in making its decision; that some of the partners’ comments were the product of [discrimination]; and that the firm in no way disclaimed reliance on those particular comments, either in Hopkins’ case or in the past. Certainly, a plausible—and, one might say, inevitable—conclusion to draw from this set of circumstances is that the Policy Board in making its decision did in fact take into account all of the partners’ comments, including the comments that were motivated by [discrimination].

In a very significant sense, Barbano presents an even stronger case of discrimination because the only recommendation the Board relied upon here was discriminatory, whereas in Price Waterhouse, not all of the evaluations used in the decision-making process were discriminatory. On the other hand, it is true that the discriminatory content of some of the evaluations in Price Waterhouse was apparent from reading them, whereas here, the recommendation was embodied in a resolution to the Board and a reading of the resolution would not reveal that it was tainted by discrimination. Nonetheless, the facts in this case show that the Board was put on notice before making the appointment that the Committee’s recommendation was biased by discrimination.

Barbano was a member of the public in attendance at the Board meeting in March 1980 when the Board voted to appoint Wagner. Before the Board adopted the resolution appointing Wagner, Barbano objected and asked the Board if male applicants were asked the questions she was asked during the interview. At this point, the entire Board membership was alerted to the possibility that the Committee had discriminated against Barbano during her interview. The Committee members did not answer the question, except for Newbold, who evaded the issue by stating that he did not ask such questions. The Board’s ability to claim ignorance at this point was even further undermined by the fact that the Chairman of the Board, Callahan, was present at many of the interviews, including Barbano’s, in his role as Chairman of the Board. Callahan did not refute Barbano’s allegations, implying that they were worthy of credence, and none of the Board members even questioned Callahan on the matter.

It is clear that those present understood Barbano was alleging that she had been subjected to discrimination during her interview. John Patane, a member of the Board who had not interviewed Barbano, asked Barbano whether she was implying that Madison County was not an equal opportunity employer. Barbano said yes. Patane said the County already had their “token woman.” Callahan apologized to Barbano for “any improper remarks that may have been made,” but an apology for discrimination does not constitute an attempt to eliminate the discrimination from the hiring decision. Even though the Board was aware of possible improprieties, it made no investigation whatsoever into the allegations and did not disclaim any reliance upon the discrimination. In short, the circumstances show the Board was willing to rely on the Committee’s recommendation even if Barbano had been discriminated against during her interview. On these facts, it was not clearly erroneous for the district court to conclude that Barbano sustained her burden of proving discrimination by the Board.

B. The Employer’s Burden

Having found that Barbano carried her burden of proving discrimination, the district court then placed the burden on appellants to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that, absent the discrimination, they would not have hired Barbano for the position. Appellants argue that this burden is only placed on an employer if the plaintiff proves discrimination by direct evidence, and since Barbano’s evidence of discrimination was merely circumstantial, the district court erred by placing the burden of proof on them. Appellants, however, misapprehend the nature of Barbano’s proof and thus the governing legal standard.

The burden is properly placed on the defendant “once the plaintiff establishes by direct evidence that an illegitimate factor played a motivating or substantial role in an employment decision.” Grant v. Hazelett Strip-Casting Corp., 880 F.2d 1564, 1568 (2d Cir. 1989). Thus, the key inquiry on this aspect of the case is whether the evidence is direct, that is, whether it shows that the impermissible criterion played some part in the decision-making process. See Hopkins, at 1791; Grant, 880 F.2d at 1569. If plaintiff provides such evidence, the fact-finder must then determine whether the evidence shows that the impermissible criterion played a motivating or substantial part in the hiring decision.

As we found above, the evidence shows that Barbano’s gender was clearly a factor in the hiring decision. That the discrimination played a substantial role in that decision is shown by the importance of the recommendation to the Board. As Rafte testified, the Board utilizes a committee system, and so the Board “usually accepts” a committee’s recommendation, as it did here when it unanimously voted to appoint Wagner. Had the Board distanced itself from Barbano’s allegations of discrimination and attempted to ensure that it was not relying upon illegitimate criteria in adopting the Committee’s recommendation, the evidence that discrimination played a substantial role in the Board’s decision would be significantly weakened. The Board showed no inclination to take such actions, however, and in adopting the discriminatory recommendation allowed illegitimate criteria to play a substantial role in the hiring decision.

The district court thus properly required appellants to show that the Board would not have hired Barbano in the absence of discrimination. “The employer has not yet been shown to be a violator, but neither is it entitled to the…presumption of good faith concerning its employment decisions. At this point the employer may be required to convince the fact-finder that, despite the smoke, there is no fire.” Hopkins, at 1798-99 (O’Connor, J., concurring).

Judge McAvoy noted in his opinion that appellants claimed they chose Wagner over Barbano because he was better qualified in the following areas: (1) interest in veterans’ affairs; (2) experience in the military; (3) tactfulness; and (4) experience supervising an office. The judge found that the evidence before him supported only appellants’ first and second reasons for refusing to hire Barbano, but acknowledged that the Committee members “were enamored with Wagner’s military record and involvement with veterans’ organizations.” However, neither of these is listed as a job requirement in the job description, although the district court found that membership in a veterans’ organization may indicate an interest in veterans’ affairs. Nonetheless, the district court found that given Barbano’s “education and experience in social services,” appellants failed to carry their burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that, absent discrimination, they would not have hired Barbano.

The district court properly held appellants to a preponderance of the evidence standard.

At the time of the hiring decision in 1980, Barbano had been a Social Welfare Examiner for Madison County for the three previous years. In this position, she determined the eligibility of individuals for public assistance, medicaid or food stamps, and would then issue or deny the individual’s application based on all federal, state and local regulations pertaining to the program from which the individual was seeking assistance. Barbano was thus familiar with the operation of public assistance programs, knew how to fill out forms relating to benefits and had become familiar with a number of welfare agencies that could be of use to veterans. Barbano was also working towards an Associate Degree in Human Services at the time. Rafte testified that Barbano’s resume was “very impressive.” Moreover, Barbano, unlike Wagner, was a resident of Madison County, and according to Rafte, a candidate’s residency in the county was considered to be an advantage. Finally, Barbano had also enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in 1976, but during recruit training had been given a vaccine that affected her vision. She had received an honorable discharge shortly thereafter.

Wagner had nine years experience as an Air Force Personnel Supervisor, maintaining personnel records, had received a high school equivalency diploma and took several extension classes in management. He had been honorably discharged from the Air Force in 1965 with the rank of Staff Sergeant. Wagner was a member of the American Legion, and his application for the position included recommendations from two American Legion members. However, for the six years prior to his appointment as Director, Wagner’s sole paid employment was as a school bus driver and part-time bartender at the American Legion. Wagner admitted that before he was hired he had no knowledge of federal, state and local laws, rules and regulations pertaining to veterans’ benefits and services, or knowledge of the forms, methods and procedures used to process veteran benefits claims. Wagner also had not maintained liaison with welfare agencies and was unfamiliar with the various welfare agencies that existed in the county.

To be sure, both candidates were qualified for the Director’s position, and it is not our job—nor was it the district court’s—to decide which one was preferable. However, there is nothing to indicate that Judge McAvoy misconceived his function in this phase of the case, which was to decide whether appellants failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that they would not have hired Barbano even if they had not discriminated against her. The judge found that defendants had not met that burden. We must decide whether that finding was clearly erroneous, and we cannot say that it was.


  1. Madison County contended that Barbano needed to provide “direct evidence” of discrimination that had played a motivating or substantial part in the decision. What would such evidence look like? Is it likely that most plaintiffs who are discriminated against because of their gender would be able to get “direct evidence” that gender was a motivating or substantial factor?
  2. The “clearly erroneous” standard is applied here, as it is in many cases where appellate courts review trial court determinations. State the test, and say why the appellate court believed that the trial judge’s ruling was not “clearly erroneous.”

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