W.Va. SC affirms $2M award in age discrimination case

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (Legal Newsline) - The Jackson County Circuit Court's denial of a motion for a new trial in an age discrimination case in which more than $2 million dollars was awarded "should not be disturbed," according to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals

Jerold John Rice, Jr. began working for Burke-Parsons-Bowlby in April 1985. The treated wood products business, headquartered in Ripley, hired Rice as an accountant and he moved up the ladder to become the controller of the five-manufacturing plant corporation, a position he held when BPB was acquired by Canadian company Stella-Jones in 2008.

In December 2008, he says he was given a thank you letter and a raise by the new owners. Soon after this, in January 2009, Stella-Jones hired an assistant controller and Rice was told to teach the new man everything he knew.

The assistant controller, Jeremy Stover, was 29 years old and Rice was 47.

On March 12, 2009, less than two months after the hiring of Stover, Rice was terminated "because the decision had been made to eliminate his position as controller," and he was told to vacate the premises that day.

In April 2009, Rice filed a complaint with the Circuit Courtof Jackson County, alleging that the defendant company "willfully, maliciously and unlawfully" terminated Rice's employment and grounding the complaint upon an allegation of age discrimination.

The jury in the trial returned a verdict in favor of Rice and found that the defendants acted maliciously. The jury awarded both back and front pay for the sum total of $2,133,991.00, but they did not award punitive damages. The judge later awarded approximately $138,000.00 in attorneys' fees and costs.

Stella-Jones appealed on several grounds including "that the jury award of unmitigated back pay and front pay constituted a de facto finding of punitive damages" and it argued that a new trial should have been granted on that basis.

"The evidence supports Rice's 24-year exemplary work record. After training Stover, a recently hired younger employee, Rice was terminated without notice, given little explanation as to the reason and told to vacate the premises that day," Chief Justice Menis E. Ketchum wrote.

"The amount awarded by the jury in wages was based on expert testimony. Upon determining that the actions of the defendants were malicious ... the element of malice reflected in the verdict merely affected the level of Rice's compensatory damages.

"Consequently, this Court is of the opinion that, in denying the motion for a new trial, the circuit court correctly rejected the defendants' assertion that the back pay and front pay awards constituted a de facto award of punitive damages. This assignment of error, therefore, is without merit."

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