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Appeals Court Upholds Race-Bias Verdict in Superintendent's Case

A federal appeals court has upheld a jury finding of race discrimination in an Arkansas school district's firing of its superintendent, but the court reduced his damages award.

Ray Nassar, who is white, was hired in 2008 as superintendent of the Hughes, Ark., district. He was offered a three-year contract renewal in 2010. But in 2011, an election shifted the racial composition of the board from a white to a black majority.

Nassar clashed with some of the board members, including one meeting that "devolved into a profanity-laced exchange," as the appeals court put it. Nassar was fired soon after. (So was the district's white business manager, who is also part of the discrimination suit but not part of the damages discussion.)

A jury found for Nassar, and awarded him $340,000 in damages.

The school district appealed, and in its March 3 decision in Nassar v. Jackson, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, in St. Louis, upheld the finding of race bias. The court said the district failed to provide detail in its initial post-trial motion arguing that there was insufficient evidence of race discrimination.

The appeals panel then reduced Nassar's damages award to $246,000, the amount an economist testified at trial represented the superintendent's actual damages from losing his job. 

The appeals court ruled 2-1 that the district court improperly sustained a jury award that included so-called front pay, or loss of future earnings.

"Front pay ... may be awarded only by a court, not by a jury.," the majority said.

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