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Webster v. Mississippi Department of Wildlife

Supreme Court of Mississippi

November 15, 2018

TAMMY WEBSTER
v.
MISSISSIPPI DEPARTMENT OF WILDLIFE, FISHERIES AND PARKS

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 06/07/2017

          COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED HON. TOMIE T. GREEN SAMUEL L. BEGLEY PETER W. CLEVELAND MICHAEL FARRELL HAROLD EDWARD PIZZETTA, III LEE DAVIS THAMES, JR HINDS COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT TRIAL JUDGE.

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: MICHAEL FARRELL.

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL BY: LEE DAVIS THAMES, JR.

          BEFORE WALLER, C.J., MAXWELL AND ISHEE, JJ.

          MAXWELL, JUSTICE.

         ¶1. To encourage noncareer military service, the Uniformed Services Employment and Remployment Rights Act (USERRA) entitles uniformed service members to prompt civil reemployment upon completing service. When Tammy Webster completed her National Guard training, she requested the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks (MDWFP) renew her contract as a part-time dispatcher. When MDWFP refused to rehire her, Webster filed a USERRA claim in state court, successfully proving MDWFP violated her federal statutory right to reemployment. Though the prevailing party, Webster appeals, challenging both her compensation award of $7, 589-one year's worth of lost part-time wages-and her attorney-fee award of $2, 800.

         ¶2. We hold that the trial court did not err in limiting Webster's compensation to one year of lost wages. Webster had been employed under yearly contracts that were not automatically renewable. While USERRA required MDWFP to reemploy her, it was under no statutory obligation to employ her indefinitely. So the compensation award is reasonably linked to what Webster lost due to MDWFP's failure to comply with USERRA.

         ¶3. That said, we reverse and remand the remainder of the judgment. First, the trial court failed to rule on Webster's liquidated-damages claim, even though Webster presented evidence MDWFP's USERRA violation was "willful," as that term is used in the statute. Second, the trial court arbitrarily assigned $2, 800 as a reasonable attorney fee, without considering the time spent by or hourly rate of Webster's counsel or any other relevant factor. Third, the trial court taxed Webster her respective court costs, even though USERRA prohibits claimants from being taxed with costs.

         ¶4. Therefore, we affirm in part and reverse and remand in part the trial court's judgment.

         Background Facts and Procedural History

         I. Webster's USERRA Claim

         ¶5. In 2011, Webster was working as a part-time dispatcher for MDWFP when she decided to enlist in the Mississippi Air National Guard. She was ordered to attend training for six months. Before she left, Webster informed MDWFP of her upcoming service. During training, she kept in contact with MDWFP, letting her supervisor know her orders had been extended two months. And when training finally ended eight months later in January 2012, she asked to be placed back on the dispatch schedule.

         ¶6. But MDWFP did not renew her contract for 2012, citing scheduling conflicts with Webster's full-time, police-department job and a reduced need for part-time dispatchers. MDWFP refused to rehire Webster even when she informed her supervisor, who had served in the National Guard thirty years, that MDWFP was violating USERRA.

         ¶7. USERRA is federal legislation enacted to encourage noncareer uniform service by eliminating the the disadvantages such service has on civilian careers and employment. 38 U.S.C. § 4301(a)(1) (2012). USERRA prohibits employment decisions motivated by discrimination based on service. 38 U.S.C. §§ 4301(a)(3), 4311 (2012). USERRA also provides service members a statutory right to prompt reemployment upon completion of a period of service. 38 U.S.C. §§ 4301(a)(2), 4312-4313 (2012). Claiming that MDWFP violated this latter statutory right to prompt remployment, Webster filed an action against her state-agency employer in Hinds County Circuit Court. See 38 U.S.C. § 4323(b)(2) (2012) (permitting a plaintiff to bring a USERRA claim in state court when the action is against the state). Following a bench trial, the trial court ruled Webster had prevailed on her USERRA claim.[1]

         ¶8. Unlike a § 4311 discrimination claim, to prove her failure-to-reemploy claim, Webster did not have to show her service was a motivating factor in MDWFP's decision not to renew her contract. Petty v. Metro. Gov't of Nashville & Davidson Cty., 687 F.3d 710, 716 (6th Cir. 2012). Instead, § 4312 "provides for nearly strict liability for failure or refusal to promptly reemploy a returning service member to his or her former employment." Mace v. Willis, 259 F.Supp.3d 1007, 1016 (D. S.D. 2017). All Webster had to prove-and did prove-is that (1) she gave advance notice of her service to her employer; (2) her cumulative length of absences did not exceed five years; and (3) she timely submitted an application for reemployment. See Sumrall v. Ensco Offshore Co., No. 2:17-CV-48-KS-MTP, 2018 WL 2088761, at *4 (S.D.Miss. May 7, 2018) (citing 38 U.S.C. § 4312(a), (e)(1)(D)). The burden then shifted to MDWFP to prove one of the two available[2] statutory affirmative defenses-(1) MDWFP's "circumstances ha[d] so changed as to make such reemployment impossible or unreasonable"; or (2) Webster had "no reasonable expectation" to continued employment because the position she left was for "a brief, nonrecurrent period." 38 U.S.C. § 4312(d)(1)(A), (d)(1)(C).

         ¶9. MDWFP had argued both that the need for part-time dispatchers had decreased and that Webster had no reasonable expectation in reemployment since she knew part-time dispatcher's contracts were not automatically renewable. The trial court rejected MDWFP's first argument, finding MDWFP's had "offered little credible proof that the need for part-time dispatchers decreased." The trial court also found Webster's expectations of reemployment to be reasonable. Webster's annual contract had been renewed four times prior to her service. And during her service, MDWFP gave no indication her contract would not be renewed upon completing service. While at trial MDWFP pointed to Webster's deficient work habits and scheduling conflicts with her full-time job, the trial court found these excuses not to rehire Webster to be "superficial since no efforts to resolve the alleged issues were raised and/or resolved with Webster prior to her deployment." (Emphasis in original.) Having rejected MDWFP's defenses, the trial court held MDWFP strictly liable for its failure promptly reemploy Webster when her service ended.

         II. Trial Court's Judgment

         ¶10. As relief, USERRA provides that a court may (A) order the employer to comply with the act, (B) award compensatory damages, and (C) if the court find the USERRA violation was "willful," further award an amount equal to the compensatory damages as liquidated damages. 38 U.S.C. § 4323(d)(1) (2012). The court also has the discretionary authority to award a prevailing employee reasonable attorney fees and litigation expenses. 38 U.S.C. § 4323(h)(2) (2012). Webster requested all these forms of relief-reinstatement, compensatory damages, liquidated damages, and attorney fees and expenses. Specifically, Webster claimed she was entitled to four-and-a-half years of back pay from the time her contract was not renewed in early 2012 to the time of the bench trial in mid-2016, which Webster calculated to be almost $44, 000. Webster based her calculation on the $9, 716.29 in part-time wages she earned in 2009-her highest earning year.

         ¶11. The trial court did not order Webster be reinstated, nor did the court award Webster four and a half years' worth of back pay. Instead, the trial court found Webster had been "entitled to reemployment for the 2012 contractual year" only. Specifically, the court found it had no authority to require MDWFP to reemploy Webster beyond the yearly contract term, because MDWFP could have decided not to renew Webster's contract after 2012 without violating USERRA. Using the amount of part-time wages Webster earned ...


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