Back Pay Supported After Austin Police Merger

     AUSTIN (CN) - Law-enforcement officers who were merged into the Austin Police Department faced systemic age discrimination, a Texas appeals court ruled.
     More than 30 members of the now defunct Austin Public Safety Emergency Management Department sued the city after it was merged with the Austin Police Department in 2006.
     PSEM officers had policed city parks, municipal courts and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, among other things. The city purportedly wanted the merger for a more uniform chain of command.
     The plaintiffs argued that older PSEM employees received disparate treatment because they were stripped of their ranks and years of service. An expert statistician testified that the merger led the average PSEM employee younger than 40 to lose only 3.7 years of service when placed on the police pay scale, while the average PSEM employee older than 40 lost 6.5 years.
     Austin appealed when a jury ruled for the officers and the trial court ordered their years of service restored and corresponding back pay and overtime paid.
     A three-judge panel with the Texas 3rd Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment Friday, disagreeing with the city's claims that the evidence was insufficient to support a first blush case of age-based disparate-impact discrimination.
     "Reviewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, we find that there is more than a scintilla of evidence from which the jury could reasonably conclude that the appellees made a prima facie case of age-based disparate-impact discrimination," Justice Scott Field wrote for the court. "Similarly, reviewing the evidence in a neutral light, we conclude that the evidence supporting the jury's finding that the appellees made a prima facie case of discrimination is not so weak as to clearly make the verdict wrong and manifestly unjust."
     Austin also failed to show that a factor other than age could explain its decision. The city had claimed its goal of no loss in base pay for PSEM officers in the merger "undoubtedly established" such a reason.
     "However, the city fails to explain a logical connection between reducing the appellees' years of service - thereby adversely affecting their opportunities for promotion and raises - and ensuring that all PSEM employees maintained their current salaries," Field wrote. "There is no evidence or testimony in the record to suggest that the reason the consolidation agreement stripped PSEM employees of their seniority was to ensure that all PSEM employees did not receive a reduction in pay. At most, the lump-sum payments to PSEM employees were designed to ameliorate some, but not all, of the adverse effects of consolidation."
     The panel also disagreed with the city's assertion the officers did not introduce evidence relevant to the overtime pay that the jury awarded. At the damages hearing, the plaintiffs introduced uncontested evidence as to back pay, including overtime, that they were owed, according to the ruling.