This Bad Boss Fired an Employee for Cursing at a Co-Worker Who Tried to Choke Him
It was James Yang's small habits that triggered Cy Tymony's anger.
Mr. Yang worked near Mr. Tymony on a computer help desk. He chewed ice. He put Coke cans in the shared freezer, where they sometimes burst. He tapped his foot against his own chair. He ate candy during team meetings.
Mr. Tymony, known in the office as a hothead, stewed over such minor annoyances before finally asking his boss, Harry Cometa, to shift Mr. Yang to the far side of the room.
Mr. Cometa spoke with both men, and agreed to separate them. But later that day, when Mr. Yang suggested that Mr. Tymony should be the person to move, Mr. Tymony exploded into violence.
According to court documents, he grabbed Mr. Yang's neck, started to choke him, and threatened to kill him. Mr. Tymony then punched and kicked a cubicle wall until it fell down. Security officials arrived and quickly removed the two men; Mr. Tymony ended up handcuffed to a chair.
Mr. Cometa wasn't in the office at the time, but he listened to the aftermath over an employee's phone. Since both workers were yelling obscenities, Mr. Cometa decided to fire them both. He didn't answer follow-up e-mail or calls from the anguished Mr. Yang, who wanted to explain what happened.
And Mr. Cometa never backed down — not even after getting an official report that caused his HR manager to describe Mr. Yang as "a complete victim."
Harry Cometa is our new Bad Boss of the Month.
After the trauma, Mr. Yang's life fell apart: He lost his career, his apartment, his self-esteem — even a chance at reconnecting with a long-ago love. Ultimately he filed a lawsuit claiming wrongful termination and infliction of emotional distress. Earlier this year, a federal jury found in his favor and awarded him $7.4 million in damages.
At time of the incident, Mr. Yang had been employed for about four years by ActioNet, a company with a help-desk contract for the Federal Aviation Administration in Lawndale, Calif. A dedicated employee, he regularly received raises; his latest came just a month before he was fired.
Mr. Tymony joined the help desk shortly after Mr. Yang. He was an amateur inventor and author of a series of kids books called Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things. His tinkering started early: As a child he had created a device that would shock bullies who menaced him, according to a Los Angeles Times profile.
At work, however, Mr. Tymony sometimes did the menacing himself. A co-worker testified, for instance, that Mr. Tymony became livid when nearby employees "pinged" each other too loudly on an instant-messaging system — so he sent them crudely worded demands to stop.
Another profane showdown came when several co-workers believed Mr. Tymony had been drinking coffee for which they had paid. His angry retort: "I drank my own f***ing coffee." Mr. Tymony reopened the argument at a subsequent department meeting, waving a bag of coffee and proclaiming his innocence.
At other team meetings, according to testimony, Mr. Tymony cursed at Mr. Yang, his peer, for asking "stupid" questions and for eating candy.
"F***, you never stop eating," he shouted after the candy run-in, slamming a wall with his fist. "You don't respect anyone — your co-workers, not even your manager!"
Mr. Yang didn't complain to ActioNet about Mr. Tymony's behavior, he said in court, because he was "afraid" of his co-worker. But another employee sent e-mail to management after the candy outburst, suggesting that Mr. Tymony's rage was undermining a safe work environment.
In early 2012, Mr. Cometa joined ActioNet as a manager for both Mr. Yang and Mr. Tymony. Apparently he was aware of previous troubles: He asked employees to go "easy" on Mr. Tymony, saying that the help-desk worker was "going through family issues."
That summer, however, Mr. Tymony's anger bubbled over again. First, according to testimony, he sent Mr. Cometa an e-mail complaining about Mr. Yang's habits — about his yawning, about his loud chewing noises, and about his exercises, which Mr. Yang performed in a small area by his desk. Mr. Tymony asked that Mr. Yang be moved.
Three days later, Mr. Cometa talked to each man about separating their cubes. Mr. Yang didn't want to move, but Mr. Cometa asked both men to avoid discussing the matter; he would make a decision the next day. Then the manager went home.
Shortly afterward, according to testimony, Mr. Yang overheard Mr. Tymony talking on the phone about a "Korean guy" who is an "a**hole." He approached Mr. Tymony and said that Mr. Tymony — not Mr. Yang — should be the person to move cubicles.
Enraged, Mr. Tymony grabbed Mr. Yang's neck and threatened to "kill" him, according to testimony. Mr. Yang closed his eyes and didn't fight back. Mr. Tymony let go but, still furious, "punched the cubicle in," according to a coworker who quickly called Mr. Cometa.
During that call, Mr. Cometa could hear the two employees yelling "F*** you" at each other in the background. Without knowing any details, he decided to fire them both.
Security officers separated the feuding men and, at Mr. Cometa's request, confiscated their access badges and sent them home. Mr. Yang was crying, he recalled at trial. "I didn't do anything," he remembers insisting.
An upset Mr. Yang called Mr. Cometa the next day, but Mr. Cometa didn't take the call. He also e-mailed Mr. Cometa, pleading his side of the story, but Mr. Cometa just referred him to Human Resources, where no one answered or returned his calls.
FAA agents had conducted interviews for a "spot report" about the fight — a report that prompted ActioNet's HR manager to send an e-mail that said, "it sounds like [Mr. Yang] was a complete victim." Mr. Cometa responded that he was still comfortable with the firing. At trial, he confirmed that he did nothing to investigate the matter. "I didn't need to," he said.
At Mr. Yang's home, meanwhile, a packet arrived with termination papers. It was the final insult, recalled Mr. Yang: "To me this letter was the most cruel letter ever in my life … I mean, this was to me just: We don't care. Go die."
Mr. Yang, then in his forties, had expected to work at the help desk until retirement. After being fired for cause, however, he couldn't find another job and teetered on the edge of homelessness. He was depressed and numb, and had suicidal thoughts.
Just before he was fired, the never-married Mr. Yang had gotten an unexpected call from his "first love," a high-school friend who now wanted to reconnect. He couldn't even face her initially, but after a few weeks he went to visit her. She told him to get a job. By the time of his trial, however, the only job Mr. Yang had secured was as a part-time, minimum-wage caregiver who lived in his patient’s home.
Mr. Tymony, meanwhile, found another computer job soon after being terminated — in a higher position than before.
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Yang v. ActioNet, Inc.. We select "Bad Boss" cases to illustrate the continuing relevance of employee protection laws for our newsletter's audience, which includes attorneys and former TELG clients.