This Bad Boss Forced a Whistleblower to Sit in a Lobby for Months
Does your manager assign too much work? Troy Miller had the opposite problem: For seven months his boss made him sit on a sofa all day, twiddling his thumbs as puzzled colleagues walked by.
As a superintendent at a federal prison in Beaumont, Texas, Mr. Miller had overseen the facility’s manufacture of helmets for military use in Afghanistan and Iraq. After investigators began probing the troubled operation, Mr. Miller made his own report of shoddy practices — and urged that production be halted so that no unsafe helmets would go to U.S. troops.
The reaction of his boss, prison warden Jody Upton? He took away Mr. Miller’s computer access, his keys, and his job duties — all to prevent Mr. Miller from obstructing the ongoing investigation, he said. Then the warden gave Mr. Miller, who was not charged with a crime, a series of jobs that were clearly below his pay grade, including wiping tables and shredding paper.
After more than 18 months of these make-work assignments, Warden Upton finally told Mr. Miller to park himself in the lobby of an administrative building — supposedly to cut off communication with the inmates he had overseen.
“I had no duties” besides sitting on a sofa, recalled Mr. Miller in a hearing. A fellow employee said the high-profile exile marked Mr. Miller as “a leper.”
Warden Jody Upton is our new Bad Boss of the Month.
Mr. Miller complained to the government’s Merit Systems Protection Board about the actions of Warden Upton and other bosses. Although an administrative judge called Mr. Miller’s treatment “demoralizing … and extremely inefficient, even wasteful,” the MSPB noted that Warden Upton said he acted at the behest of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which was looking into improprieties at Beaumont — including possible wrongdoing by Mr. Miller.
As a result, said the MSPB, Mr. Miller’s do-nothing assignments didn’t qualify as illegal punishment.
In December 2016, a federal appeals court reversed the MSPB and vindicated Mr. Miller, saying that Warden Upton’s story lacked corroboration and, even if true, “affords only minimal support” for the treatment endured by Mr. Miller. It ordered the MSPB to determine a proper remedy for Mr. Miller — although that’s now on hold, as the Justice Department requests a rehearing.
Mr. Miller’s demotion to couch potato was an unlikely outcome for the former U.S. Marine and two-decade veteran of the Federal Bureau of Prisons: Even after the fact, Warden Upton acknowledged him to be a “fantastic” employee — “confident, organized … very on top of things.” His performance rating before the conflict was “Outstanding.”
The trouble started in 2009, about two years after Mr. Miller became a superintendent at Beaumont. The inmate-staffed helmet factory had swung from an $8 million profit to a loss, a change that Mr. Miller blamed on underbilling and mismanagement by Federal Prison Industries, the government-owned corporation that contracts for prison labor and is commonly known as UNICOR.
About two months before he asked for a production halt, Mr. Miller had reported UNICOR’s financial troubles to Warden Upton and others. Now he shifted his focus to safety: He had discovered, he said, that defective Kevlar was being used to make helmets. He suspected “sabotage” on the line.
“The lives of U.S. Marines are more important than anything else,” he wrote in an e-mail to Warden Upton.
Mr. Miller made his discovery the morning after OIG investigators had visited Beaumont; the previous day, he had been ordered not to report to the helmet factory during the visit. According to Warden Upton, the burgeoning OIG probe — which ultimately would lead to the factory’s closing and a $3 million civil settlement — started with a tip from a line manager who had been reported by Mr. Miller for sexual misconduct.
Immediately after hearing Mr. Miller’s helmet-safety concerns, Warden Upton decided to shift him out of the factory, triggering a succession of make-work jobs. The warden was motivated, he said, by a request from an OIG official whom he never named — not by Mr. Miller’s safety warning.
Warden Upton would later learn, he testified, that OIG was considering criminal charges against Mr. Miller and wanted him to be completely isolated from inmates. The warden never cited a specific source for that information, either.
Mr. Miller was never charged criminally, and a civil complaint that named him was dismissed. While the MSPB believed that Warden Upton had acted validly given OIG’s suspicions, the appeals court disagreed: It characterized Mr. Miller as “a valued executive, whose expertise and attention to detail made his product line one of the most successful in the [prison bureau].”
The bottom line for the appeals court: Warden Upton’s unsupported testimony, by itself, couldn’t be the “clear and convincing” evidence that’s required to disprove apparent retaliation under the Whistleblower Protection Act.
“Mr. Miller was repeatedly reassigned,” the court observed, “… and for each step, the Government did not present a single email, memorandum, or personnel action form …. Common sense tells us that these … are the types of personnel actions for which papers would normally attach.”
For his part, Mr. Miller claimed that Warden Upton was moved to retaliate because a potential shutdown would harm the Beaumont prison and deprive inmates of employment. And indeed, the warden himself testified that discipline would be a greater challenge without the factory routine, a fact that caused him “some angst.”
Regardless of the reason, recalled Mr. Miller, “I was done. I’ve never been back in that factory.”
What followed was a downward spiral of job duties. Warden Upton first sent Mr. Miller to oversee inmates as they took meals. But that didn’t last long because, according to the warden, OIG didn’t want Mr. Miller talking to inmates.
Later Mr. Miller was assigned to monitor inmates’ recorded phone calls — until that, too, was nixed by OIG. Mr. Miller did a stint in the prison’s personnel office, where he did “clerical kinds of things, you know, shredding,” explained Warden Upton.
“Is that a waste of his talents?” the warden was asked at a hearing.
“Absolutely,” answered Warden Upton.
Most wasteful, however, was what the MSPB administrative judge called Mr. Miller’s “demoralizing sojourn on the lobby sofa,” which started in 2011. As the couch-sitting wore on, the prison’s safety officer began to worry about the superintendent’s mental state, because virtually no one interacted with him: “He was just kind of like a fixture in the lobby,” he testified.
In the meantime, Warden Upton moved on to a new job in Oklahoma and the helmet factory shut down permanently. Mr. Miller was rescued from the lobby and named as Camp Administrator, then Management Analyst. Although he got an office, the titles meant little: At the end of 2012 the OIG was still investigating and Mr. Miller was pressure-washing the administrative building.
Soon afterward Mr. Miller filed his petition to the MSPB, alleging violations of the Whistleblower Protection Act — a statute that protects federal employees from retaliation for blowing the whistle on fraud, waste, and abuse.
In August 2016, a few months before Mr. Miller’s win at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, the OIG finally announced the results of its long-running investigation. The shuttered Beaumont facility had “endemic manufacturing problems” and produced helmets with “numerous defects,” it said. UNICOR staff cheated on inspections, and falsified documents in order to sell rejected helmets to the U.S. military. Mr. Miller was not mentioned.
The OIG said it had no evidence that the faulty helmets caused any deaths or injuries — but the government ended up recalling more than 126,000 units at a cost of more than $19 million.
Earlier in 2016, ArmorSource LLC, an Ohio-based defense contractor that had engaged UNICOR to make helmets at Beaumont, agreed to pay $3 million to settle charges that it had defrauded the government. Part of that settlement will go to the whistleblower who originally accused Mr. Miller of wrongdoing.
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Miller v. Department of Justice. 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.
During this case, Troy Miller was represented by Dennis L. Friedman, of Philadelphia; and by David L. Wilson, of Stigler, Okla.
This Bad Boss Canned Two High-Achieving Siblings — One of Them “Jersey-Style” at a Parkway Rest Stop
Ramon Cuevas managed residential properties, and he did it well. During his tenure as regional vice president of Wentworth Property Management Corp. (WPM), based in Eatontown, N.J., he received high ratings and expanded his property purview from nine to 24.
WPM also hired Ramon’s brother Jeffrey Cuevas — and Jeffrey quickly thrived, too, rising from portfolio manager to executive director. The siblings were minority success stories: Although the WPM workforce was 20 percent Hispanic, Ramon was the only Hispanic person in upper-level management. Jeffrey hoped to join him there.
Things soured for the Cuevas siblings, according to court documents, when they fell under the supervision of Arthur Bartikofsky, executive vice president of operations at WPM, a part of FirstService Corp., the Canadian property-services giant. Suddenly they found themselves singled out for belittlement as “the two Chihuahuas,” among other slights.
Mr. Bartikofsky set the demeaning tone, according to testimony, with unfunny cracks like the one at a business lunch, where he talked about sending Ramon Cuevas to “join his father” washing dishes in the back of the restaurant. Other executives joined in the mockery — even WPM’s director of human resources.
Both brothers hated the jibes, but tried not to seem thin-skinned. Jeffrey Cuevas finally complained to WPM’s in-house lawyer, however, and Mr. Bartikofsky responded by firing the junior brother. A few weeks later, on New Year’s Day, Mr. Bartikofsky tapped his inner Tony Soprano and asked Ramon Cuevas to meet him at a rest area on the Garden State Parkway.
“Don’t bother sitting down,” said Mr. Bartikofsky. “You’re terminated.” The scene evoked a “Jersey-style” hit, according to one of Mr. Cuevas’ lawyers.
Arthur Bartikofsky is our new Bad Boss of the Month.
The Cuevas brothers filed a complaint claiming discrimination and retaliation, among other things, and a state jury awarded them total damages of $2.5 million — including a combined $1.4 million for emotional distress. In September 2016, the Supreme Court of New Jersey affirmed the emotional damages, noting that the Cuevas were subjected to “mental anguish and humiliation … sustained over a long period.”
In court, Ramon and Jeffrey Cuevas described the ethnic comments as relentless — and said that Mr. Bartikofsky was the enabler, “joking” about their heritage at high-level meetings, staff gatherings, and even in front of vendors and contractors. Other WPM executives in attendance, including the company’s president, said nothing or added their own tired tropes.
While executives were listening to music before a conference call began, for instance, someone asked for “something a little more to Ramon’s taste … a little Mariachi or salsa music?” At catered lunches, people would mock-apologize to Ramon for not having burritos or tacos. At a restaurant, someone pointed out a Hispanic bus boy and told Ramon he “could have been your twin.” One day Ramon had to fix a flat tire on his way to work; a colleague suggested he was lucky not to have been mistaken for a “Puerto Rican … trying to steal … the hubcaps.”
Ramon Cuevas testified that he felt “chopped down day by day, month by month” by the stereotypes. And once he was promoted, Jeffrey Cuevas also faced “extremely degrading” treatment at many of the same meetings. One reaction when Jeffrey joined the executive circle: “[W]e’re going to need … another Chihuahua.”
Mr. Bartikofsky already had been calling Ramon Cuevas “Rico Suave,” a reference to the 1990 hit song about a ladies’ man by Ecuadorian rapper Gerardo. Now Mr. Bartikofsky began talking about the “Rico Suave brothers,” while WPM’s HR chief referred to the Cuevas as “the Latin Lovers,” according to testimony — a label that Jeffrey Cuevas found especially “grotesque” coming from a personnel expert.
Another theme: Dangerous Hispanic people. Two WPM property managers testified that Mr. Bartikofsky assured them that Ramon Cuevas could keep them safe in bad neighborhoods because he was “one of them.” Jeffrey Cuevas heard the same notion from another WPM regional vice president, who added that Ramon would “have his switchblade with him, because, of course, he’s Spanish.”
Both brothers hesitated to complain because WPM’s top brass was already aware of the harassment — and indeed, often participated. When Jeffrey Cuevas couldn’t stand it anymore, however, he flagged his discomfort to WPM’s in-house counsel. Just four days later, Mr. Bartikofsky terminated him.
Shocked, Jeffrey Cuevas initially thought the firing was a joke: He had gotten a merit raise just a few weeks earlier. But Mr. Bartikofsky stood firm and ordered Jeffrey to clear out his desk. As he made what he called his “walk of shame” out of the office, Jeffrey Cuevas wondered how to tell his wife that he had lost his job three weeks before Christmas.
WPM replaced Jeffrey Cuevas with a Caucasian male pest-control manager who had no property management experience.
A few weeks later, on New Year’s Day, Ramon Cuevas got an unexpected call from Mr. Bartikofsky, who asked for a meeting at the Cheesequake Service Area on the Garden State Parkway. Although the request was strange, Ramon agreed. When he arrived, Mr. Bartikovsky handed him an envelope and fired him on the spot. Inside the envelope was a letter blaming Ramon for losing accounts — and accusing him of soliciting a kickback, a charge he denied.
At trial, WPM portrayed the unusual firing location as a matter of convenience. One of Mr. Cuevas’ lawyers, however, said WPM wanted to do it “Jersey-style. [The mob] used to issue hits that way. That was the mentality.”
Ramon, like Jeffrey, was replaced by a Caucasian male. Despondent and edgy from a long period of humiliation, he had been fighting with his wife. Now, just a few months after the termination, she filed for divorce. He wound up sleeping on a friend’s sofa.
In appealing the jury’s verdict for emotional damages, WPM argued that any insensitive remarks attributed to Mr. Bartikofsky or other executives were just “teasing,” and that $1.4 million was excessive as a total award. The New Jersey Supreme Court disagreed, saying that as a general matter it won’t second-guess a jury’s reaction …
… to the timbre of a voice that recalls the emotional cuts and slashes felt from racially animated discrimination; to in-depth descriptions of daily workplace humiliations that mentally beat down an employee; and to first-hand accounts of mental anguish — anguish that leads to depression and frays personal relationships.
The awards — $800,000 to Ramon Cuevas and $600,000 to Jeffrey Cuevas — would stand.
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Cuevas v. Wentworth Group. 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.
This Bad Boss Tracked Employees on Her Smartphone — and Punished Any Naysayers
Teecha Chamblee never had panic attacks before she was hired as the clinic manager at Inland Behavioral and Health Services (IBHS) — but then, she had never worked for Temetry Lindsey before.
For 30 years now, Ms. Lindsey has run the non-profit community clinic in San Bernardino, Calif. As painted in a series of lawsuits filed by former employees, including Ms. Chamblee, she is a dictatorial CEO who hires family members, charges poor patients too much, permits lavish narcotics handouts, and freezes out — or fires — anyone who crosses her.
According to testimony, Ms. Lindsey tracks employees' movements on her smartphone, to which she has piped video feeds from cameras all over IBHS facilities. She allowed one supervisor to deprive "lazy" clinic employees of desks and chairs, forcing them to kneel as they typed. And she used the non-profit's money to buy herself a BMW X5, ostensibly at the request of her board of directors, a hand-picked group that includes her hairdresser.
Ms. Chamblee said she tried to challenge the worst practices at IBHS, including some evident faking of patient data. But for her troubles — which included a run-in with Ms. Lindsey's disruptive daughter, who was on the non-profit's payroll — she was banished from the executive suite and shut out of key meetings. Ultimately she had no choice but to quit.
"I felt like I was in a cult," Ms. Chamblee said in a deposition. "I don't do cults."
Temetry Lindsey is our latest Bad Boss of the Month.
Ms. Chamblee quickly found another job. In July 2016 a California state jury awarded her $50,000 in damages from IBHS, saying that she was effectively fired for speaking up, and that IBHS acted with "malice, fraud or oppression."
In court documents, Ms. Chamblee described her time at the clinic as "hell." Besides having her first-ever panic attack, she gained a lot of weight under the stress of being shunned by Ms. Lindsey, her direct supervisor.
Among other problems at IBHS, Ms. Chamblee had flagged the clinic's improper practice of including food-stamp payments in its calculation of poor patients' income, which allowed IBHS to charge higher fees. Ms. Lindsey listened to her concern, but replied that nothing would change.
Ms. Chamblee also dealt with issues caused by the IBHS medical director, Donald Underwood, who was hired by Ms. Lindsey despite prior suspensions in five other states for problems including overprescription of narcotics, malpractice, and fraud. In New York, by his own account, he was suspended for allowing his wife, who is not a physician, to implant synthetic fiber in patients' scalps in imitation of "authentic hair."
At IBHS, Ms. Chamblee testified, Dr. Underwood was in heavy demand as the only physician willing to prescribe promethazine with codeine, a narcotic cough syrup that's often mixed with soda and candy to make a street cocktail known as "sizzurp" or "purple drank."
"Most of the patients came to see him," said Ms. Chamblee, "because he — well, you know … he gave out meds."
Other IBHS personnel warned about Dr. Underwood. Tiffany Hill, a physician at the clinic, sent an e-mail to Ms. Lindsey saying that Dr. Underwood’s prescriptions "scared" her, noting that one patient had received scripts for a virtual pharmacy of pills, including 485 hydrocodone, 830 Tramadol, 330 Xanax, and 270 Valium. Dr. Hill and another IBHS employee were fired after making such complaints, and later settled a joint lawsuit they filed against the clinic.
According to Ms. Chamblee, the only survivors at IBHS are those who don’t challenge Ms. Lindsey or her protectees, who include family members and Dr. Underwood. "Whatever she said, goes," said Ms. Chamblee. "Nobody contested or questioned anything, even if they knew better." Behind her back, however, disgruntled workers called her "the blue-eyed devil," Ms. Chamblee testified. (Ms. Lindsey has striking blue eyes.)
Even longtime employees could be targets for the CEO. Barbette "Bobbie" Barton, who was Ms. Lindsey’s personal assistant for 13 years, claimed in court documents that Ms. Lindsey was abusive and threatened to fire her, for instance, if she didn’t get her "a** down to the store to pick up snacks" for a meeting.
Ms. Lindsey also was demeaning of Hispanic people, calling them "wetbacks" and "beaners" in front of Ms. Barton, whose daughter-in-law and grandchildren are Hispanic.
Like Ms. Chamblee, Ms. Barton became hobbled by the stress of working for Ms. Lindsey. She filed a workers' compensation claim to take time off — but when she returned, she said, she was stripped of all duties, moved to a different location, and deprived of a computer and telephone. For several weeks, she could do little more than make copies.
Ms. Barton also filed suit against IBHS, and reached a settlement.
Ms. Chamblee herself was frozen out for a variety of reasons. Ms.Lindsey sent security to confiscate her key to the executive suite, for instance, after she raised concerns that IBHS wasn't complying with state and federal regulations — and that data submitted in applications for government funding didn't match IBHS records.
Ms. Lindsey seemed just as upset, however, when Ms. Chamblee passed along complaints about the workplace antics of Samantha Dotson, the CEO's unruly daughter.
Ms. Dotson reported to Ms. Chamblee, but "came and left whenever she wanted" and dressed and behaved unprofessionally. "She would do little stupid things like take people's lunches, hide people's purses," testified Ms. Chamblee. "She'd throw things across the cubicles. I couldn't go and tell her to stop … because that's the boss' daughter."
One of Ms. Dotson's pranks contributed to a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by another employee, which was resolved out of court.
Ms. Lindsey's mother also worked at IBHS, and the CEO's son became pharmacy supervisor, with access to medications, although former employees have challenged his qualifications in court filings.
Ms. Chamblee finally quit under pressure from her boss, who stopped replying to e-mails and declined to give her work assignments. "I just couldn't take it," said Ms. Chamblee, a mother of three who was seeing a doctor for a worsening health condition. "I don't ever want to see [Ms. Lindsey] again, and even talking about her sometimes makes me sick."
Like many former IBHS employees, Ms. Chamblee was represented in her case by Tristan Pelayes, a local attorney and former deputy sheriff who has been dogged in pursuing Ms. Lindsey.
Mr. Pelayes' next IBHS case, representing Anais Parsaeian, a former nurse at the clinic, may reach trial in 2017. He says he has more lined up after that.
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Chamblee v. Inland Behavioral and Health Services, 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.
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.
This Bad Boss Knew Nothing About Middle Easterners — Except That He Disliked Them
Shortly after Greg Washenko joined Fairview Property Investments as its chief financial officer, he had a “meet and greet” in his office with Monica Guessous, a bookkeeper who would serve as his direct report.
Upon learning that Ms. Guessous was born in Morocco, he informed her — based on an experience with some Iraqi customers — that “Middle Easterners … are a bunch of crooks [who] will stop at nothing to screw you.”
That insult set the tone for the next four years, according to court documents. Mr. Washenko bullied Ms. Guessous, a Muslim Arab American, and peppered her with ignorant and offensive remarks, often conflating her Moroccan heritage with other Middle Eastern identities.
At one point, irked that Ms. Guessous couldn’t act as translator for an Iranian restaurant employee — because she does not speak Farsi — Mr. Washenko blurted, “Shouldn’t there be some secret language that you all understand?”
At other times, Ms. Guessous testified, Mr. Washenko interrupted her workday to grill her about Islam, Palestinian suicide bombers, or an uprising in Egypt. When she mentioned the modernity of Dubai, he dismissed its residents as “just a bunch of camel people.”
Matters came to a head when Ms. Guessous returned from maternity leave to find that Mr. Washenko had withdrawn most of her work assignments. She confronted him about his ongoing behavior and asked to get her duties back — only to be fired soon afterward.
Greg Washenko is our new Bad Boss of the Month.
Ms. Guessous filed a federal lawsuit against Fairview, a property management company based in Falls Church, Va. In July, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that a jury should hear her claims of discrimination, retaliation, and hostile work environment, citing evidence of “a history of discomfort, distrust, … disparaging treatment [and] discriminatory animus.”
Fairview quickly settled with Ms. Guessous on undisclosed terms.
Besides Mr. Washenko’s comments — which even a Fairview attorney agreed were inappropriate — the Fourth Circuit also cited evidence of “intimidating and intrusive” behavior that was designed to make Ms. Guessous feel untrusted.
As many as 40 times a day, for instance, Mr. Washenko would loom over Ms. Guessous at her desk, making her feel “cornered,” and ask what she was working on.
“He would stand with shoulders wide,” Ms. Guessous said at a deposition. “He made me feel like I was small, like I was nothing. I was this little camel-riding person that came here to the U.S. and that he was better than me.”
Just five minutes after she started one assignment, Mr. Washenko asked her whether it was done — and when she said it was not, he “looked at his watch, snapped his fingers, and said, ‘[T]his is not Moroccan time,'” according to the Fourth Circuit opinion.
Mr. Washenko didn’t monitor other Fairview employees so closely, and Ms. Guessous felt isolated, depressed, and anxious as a result. She testified that she often left the office to cry; she fretted about how workplace stress might affect her pregnancy.
Some of Mr. Washenko’s needling was intensely personal: For months he insisted on addressing Ms. Guessous as “Mounia,” her Moroccan name, for instance, despite her repeated requests to use her Americanized preference, “Monica.” A professed Christian, he denigrated her faith for not believing in “the same God.”
And when she wished him well on his birthday, which happens to fall on September 11, Mr. Washenko said he was reminded of “the terrorist attacks by the Muslims” and stalked off.
“I have never felt so inferior to anyone as I am feeling at this point,” she wrote in a personal e-mail at the time, noting that she was “sick and tired of [being] the 411 for issues relating to a Muslim terrorist.”
Ms. Guessous’ three-month maternity leave triggered a showdown. Mr. Washenko declined to give her any substantive work when she returned. She challenged him, citing his bias against her — and within minutes Fairview’s president had started soliciting a new job for “a wonderful girl that works for me that we simply do not have enough work for right now.”
Ms. Guessous was formally fired three months later, but Fairview admitted that the decision was made at roughly the time she confronted Mr. Washenko. “A reasonable jury could easily conclude” that the firing was retaliation, according to the Fourth Circuit.
Ms. Guessous’ husband was not working at the time, her new baby had special needs, and she subsequently went on welfare. Her family relationships suffered, and she sought therapy to “combat the years of mental torture and abuse” inflicted at Fairview.
Even as he was firing Ms. Guessous, however, Mr. Washenko seemed blind to the pain he was causing her. Indeed, according to her deposition, he halted her termination meeting to a receive a personal text — and then laughed aloud.
“My wife is out of town and I’m playing Mr. Mom today,” he explained, chuckling at the text. “My daughter just got her period at school.
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Guessous v. Fairview Property Investments, LLC. 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.
As a Pretext for Firing, This Bad Boss Picked a 68-Cent Pepper
Bobby Dean Nickel never dreamed that his career would end over a 68-cent bell pepper — but that’s exactly what his boss, Lionel Marrero, used as an excuse to dump him.
Mr. Nickel was working as a manager at an office-supplies warehouse in La Mirada, Calif., when Mr. Marrero started to push out older, higher-paid workers in favor of “young energetic people,” according to court testimony. Among other tactics, Mr. Marrero told his staff to walk around the warehouse with older workers and “if they cannot keep up then get rid of them.”
Mr. Nickel, then 64, had gotten mostly good reviews for a decade. Still, Mr. Marrero needled him about retiring from the Staples, Inc. subsidiary. He piled on extra work and called Mr. Nickel an old “goat” and “coot,” according to documents.
Finally, Mr. Marrero saw Mr. Nickel carrying a bell pepper from a salad he had discarded during an after-hours inspection of the warehouse cafeteria. That was it: Mr. Nickel was labeled a thief and fired — a result that Mr. Marrero later admitted in court was “almost … ridiculous.”
Lionel Marrero is our new Bad Boss of the Month.
Mr. Nickel’s life crumpled after the firing, and he sued Staples and its subsidiary. A California jury found the companies liable for age discrimination and awarded Mr. Nickel $26 million — a sum that included almost $23 million in punitive damages. The trial judge disallowed $10 million of that amount; Staples appealed the remainder. This May a state appeals court affirmed the revised verdict, saying it was supported by ample evidence that Staples’ behavior was “base, contemptible, and vile.”
At the time of his termination in 2011, Mr. Nickel had been making nearly $90,000 a year as facilities manager in La Mirada: The operation had a higher pay scale than other parts of Staples, inherited when the office-supplies giant acquired the business in 2008.
Then came Mr. Marrero’s cost-cutting campaign. In meetings attended by Mr. Nickel, according to testimony, Mr. Marrero told managers to take “a closer look at the older people. They are starting to drag and are slowing down.”
Any older person who was not a top performer should be written up and dismissed, said Mr. Marrero, because “we can get younger people to work cheaper.” Mr. Marrero even offered older workers paid leave so they could look for other jobs, according to Mr. Nickel.
Mr. Marrero repeatedly asked Mr. Nickel when he planned to stop working. Mr. Nickel replied that he didn’t plan to retire until the day he died — an answer that didn’t please Mr. Marrero.
Based on his manager’s hostility, Mr. Nickel became anxious about his future with Staples. His wife testified that he withdrew from his family and was “consumed with this fear of losing his job and not being able to provide for us.”
Things came to a head with “the bell pepper incident,” as the appeals court called it.
One day Mr. Marrero had bumped into Mr. Nickel, who was carrying a bell pepper he had rescued from a ruined cafeteria salad. When Mr. Marrero asked about the pepper, Mr. Nickel said he would pay for it the next day when the cafeteria reopened — an honor system that both men knew was common practice.
The next thing Mr. Nickel knew, however, the company’s security chief was accusing him of theft and yelling at him, “We got you. We got you. You did it.” Although he ultimately paid for the pepper, Mr. Nickel was suspended for three days. When he returned to work, he was fired for “conduct unbecoming a manager.”
Shortly afterward, Mr. Nickel says he met with another of his supervisors, who told him the real story: “They were trying to make you quit. You did not. So they found something else.”
Several older Staples workers testified that they also were pushed out of their jobs due to discrimination or retaliation. For instance, one former manager said that Mr. Marrero derided his request for medical accommodation after a stroke — and that he was fired shortly after complaining about this treatment, for what the appeals court called “an apparently trivial reason.”
A 24-year employee said he was terminated shortly after reporting a theft by Mr. Marrero. A 28-year employee said she felt compelled to take a buyout after Mr. Marrero and another manager told her she was getting older and moving too slowly — and then shifted her start time to 3 a.m.
And there were other examples, too, which the appeals court said could reasonably show malice “as Staples sought to reduce the cost of its operations by systematically removing older, higher-paid employees.”
Mr. Nickel, meanwhile, couldn’t find a new job in California and was forced to move his family to Idaho. He suffered depression, anxiety, and guilt over not being able to provide for his family — gaining weight and becoming a “broken spirit” and “just a shell of who he had been,” according to his wife.
In its appeal, Staples argued that $16 million in damages was excessive punishment for this outcome. The court disagreed, citing Staples’ “high degree of reprehensibility” and awarding Mr. Nickel his appeal costs besides — which likely makes the disputed bell pepper the most expensive cafeteria item ever.
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Nickel v. Staples Contract & Commercial, 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.
With His Workers Facing Sexual Assault, This Bad Boss Stood Behind — the Harasser?
When William Fleischer needed a housekeeping manager for Vail Run Resort, a timeshare complex in the ritzy Colorado ski town, he hired Omar Quezada. Things quickly went downhill.
For a solid year, Mr. Quezada made life miserable for the cleaning staff of 15 Mexican immigrants. According to court documents, Mr. Quezada acted as a relentless sexual predator, exposing himself to women staff members, assaulting them, and demanding sex — then retaliating when they refused.
Mr. Quezada was arrested, prohibited from working at the resort, convicted by a local jury, and ordered to register as a sex offender — yet his boss Mr. Fleischer unaccountably supported him along the way, calling him a "good employee," giving him other work, and arranging for payment of some legal fees, according to a government complaint.
Mr. Fleischer even tried to block Mr. Quezada's victims from seeking justice: According to the complaint, he "stormed into" the Vail office of Catholic Charities, which was helping one of his housekeepers to file legal charges, and threatened to have the group's funding cut if its social worker didn't abandon the case.
Finally, Mr. Fleischer's managers fired most of the workers who had complained about Mr. Quezada.
William Fleischer is our new “Bad Boss of the Month.”
In 2015, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit against Vail Run Resort and Mr. Fleischer’s Global Hospitality Resorts, Inc. — the management company that employed Mr. Quezada and his victims — alleging a hostile work environment and illegal retaliation. Earlier this year, the defendants agreed to pay the abused workers more than $1 million.
According to the complaint, Mr. Quezada started harassing his cleaning crew almost as soon as he was hired at the 54-unit resort. He began with sexual jokes during breakfast and lunch breaks. But Mr. Quezada didn’t just talk dirty: He wore tight shorts to emphasize his endowment, shared explicit photos on his phone, and told female workers they could trade sex for promotion.
As time went on, according to the complaint, Mr. Quezada began cornering employees in rooms, removing his clothes, and asking for sex. In at least one case, he tried forcibly to undress a housekeeper.
Mr. Quezada also played cruelly on the Mexican workers' fear of immigration authorities: According to a complaint filed by four former employees, he liked to tell his crew that enforcement officials had arrived at Vail Run, at which point the frightened housekeepers would run and hide. He repeatedly told the Mexican employees that they had no rights, that they were ignorant, and that he could have them deported at any time.
One employee, Maribel Soto Perez, had been pregnant when Mr. Quezada started working at Vail Run. Not long after she suffered a miscarriage, she said, Mr. Quezada entered an elevator and began fondling her, telling her he would take away her depression. After Ms. Soto rejected him, he responded by exposing himself.
Ms. Soto and others reported Mr. Quezada’s behavior to Global Hospitality controller Alan McLean, who worked for Mr. Fleischer, but Mr. McLean replied that Mr. Quezada was doing "a fine job," according to the EEOC. Neither Mr. McLean nor Mr. Fleischer investigated the matter, the EEOC said — not even after Ms. Soto went to Vail police and an investigating officer told Mr. Fleischer of his "dismay" that Mr. Quezada remained a supervisor.
Vail Police arrested Mr. Quezada twice. After the second arrest, he received a restraining order that made it impossible for him to work at Vail Run, so he resigned. That same day, according to the EEOC complaint, Mr. Fleischer commiserated with Mr. Quezada, saying he was “likely set up” and that anything he may have done was “consensual.”
Meanwhile Mr. Fleischer kept Mr. Quezada on the payroll at his personal ranch in a nearby town — and he helped Mr. Quezada to hire an attorney who previously worked for him, arranging for payment of $1,700 in legal fees.
At the criminal trial, Mr. McLean, the controller, testified in favor of Mr. Quezada, showing photos to discredit Ms. Soto's story of the elevator assault. But the jury found Mr. Quezada guilty of unlawful sexual conduct and extortion — both felonies — and Mr. Quezada pled guilty to two further charges.
Alas, Mr. Quezada's removal from Vail Run didn't end the housekeepers' woes: Mr. Fleischer quickly hired a new manager, Maria Ledezma, to “clean house” — and at least six of the complaining employees were fired in the following months. Ms. Ledezma and Mr. McLean even called the Vail police to escort Ms. Soto and her husband, also an employee, off the premises after Ms. Soto refused to sign an agreement that prohibited her from talking about Mr. Quezada's actions, according to the EEOC.
When Ms. Soto filed state discrimination charges a few months later, Mr. Fleischer denied that she ever had been harassed and called her a “liar” and “bipolar.” The EEOC soon stepped in to support Ms. Soto and her co-workers, however, and Mr. Fleischer's companies opted to settle the resulting civil lawsuit rather than face a jury.
The consent decree in the case orders Mr. Fleischer's companies to pay $1.02 million to cover damages and attorney fees for eight "aggrieved individuals," including Ms. Soto and her husband. Mr. Fleischer and Mr. McLean each must undergo 12 hours of annual harassment and discrimination training — but Mr. Fleischer was removed from the case as a personal defendant, so that's about it.
Vail Run, meanwhile, need pay just a scant $20,000 of the overall settlement: The remaining $1 million will be paid by insurance.
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in E.E.O.C. v. Vail Run Resort Community Association, 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.
This Bad Boss Discouraged Pregnancy — and Fired Employees Who Were Expecting
Over a period of six months, Bruce Paswall learned that three of his employees were pregnant.
The New York chiropractor was not happy for them.
“Again?” said Dr. Paswall, according to court testimony, upon hearing of the third case — just months after he had fired the first two pregnant women.
And so Melissa Rodriguez became the third victim — called out for her weight gain, given extra work, paid for fewer hours. Dr. Paswall’s office manager even bullied her into an unneeded ultrasound and had the result sent directly to him. Ultimately she too was fired; afterward, she suffered from severe anxiety and her hair started falling out.
“The happiest moment in my life — and they took that away from me,” an emotional Ms. Rodriguez told the court.
Bruce Paswall, owner of G.E.B. Medical Management, Inc. in Manhattan, is our latest “Bad Boss of the Month.”
After a month-long trial, a state jury in Bronx, N.Y., found that Dr. Paswall and G.E.B. had discriminated against all three of the former employees and awarded them a total of more than $6 million in damages. The case is currently in post-trial motions.
Why would a healthcare professional be hostile to pregnancy? According to testimony, the trouble started when another former employee returned to work after having a baby, asked for a raise, and then quit without notice. This infuriated Dr. Paswall, and he wanted to avoid a repeat.
When hiring Marlena Santana as a new administrative assistant, for instance, Dr. Paswall asked about her reproductive plans and advised her not to have children, the jury heard. When she said she probably wouldn’t have kids until her 30s, Dr. Paswall replied, “Smart girl.”
Just a few months later, however, Ms. Santana found herself pregnant. After Dr. Paswall heard the news he stopped talking to her, she testified. Instead of working at the front desk, as before, her hours were sliced and she was ordered to spend most of her day filing in a hot, tight, windowless back room where employees were often bitten by dust mites or mosquitos. Buffeted by bad morning sickness, she would return from throwing up only to be told “it’s not that serious.”
Meanwhile, Yasminda Davis — the second plaintiff — had been hired shortly after Ms. Santana to work as a medical biller. Like Ms. Santana, she said Dr. Paswall quizzed her about marriage and children during the interview process. And when Ms. Santana’s pregnancy became known in the office, Dr. Paswall warned Ms. Davis that she “better not get pregnant like that.”
But Ms. Davis was already feeling unwell; an office gossip speculated about her being pregnant. After she took a couple of sick days, she noticed a growing chill in the office environment: Dr. Paswall stopped being friendly and she felt “watched.”
Things came to a head when Ms. Davis told the office manager she was seeing a doctor about a possible pregnancy: He said “Oh boy” and “stormed off” to Dr. Paswall’s office, she testified. The following week, after her pregnancy was verified, Dr. Paswall told Ms. Davis “it wasn’t working out” and fired her. The very next day, Ms. Santana was fired in a similar way.
Both pregnant women were devastated. Ms. Santana sank into depression; her relationship suffered, and she stopped seeing friends. “I didn’t even want to get out of bed,” she said.
Ms. Davis also had escalating tensions at home, plus severe money troubles: With her husband and daughter, she was evicted from her apartment and — after her son was born and her husband became violent — ended up living in a shelter for battered women.
Finally there was Melissa Rodriguez, the third plaintiff, who was hired as an administrative assistant immediately after Ms. Santana and Ms. Davis were fired. This time Dr. Paswall didn’t ask Ms. Rodriguez about her family plans during the hiring process — but as it happened, she was already six or seven weeks pregnant.
When she began showing a few months later, Ms. Rodriguez testified, Dr. Paswall commented on her large belly and his office manager accused her of having worn a girdle to disguise her pregnancy. He forced her to take an ultrasound to prove she had not been lying “about how far along I was in my pregnancy.”
She wasn’t lying — yet after a few months in which her workload was increased, her pay was cut, and her appearance was criticized, she also was fired.
Ms. Rodriguez told the jury that she tried to hide the firing from her husband, a traumatized veteran, because she felt “ashamed, embarrassed, angry. And I should have been happy. … it was robbed from me.”
She tried to look for work while visibly pregnant, but, she said, “Nobody would hire me.” One month after the baby was born, she and her husband separated. They got back together and the following year she became pregnant again. But this time, she testified, instead of being happy she found herself “scared.”
“I kept on having flashbacks of what happened to me at” Dr. Paswall’s office, she told jurors. “Scared that I would be going through the same thing … the crying, the losing my job, not being able to afford things for my kids, looking for a crib. I don’t want to go through that again.”
With regret, Ms. Rodriguez terminated her pregnancy.
The jury awarded more than $1.5 million in compensation to each of the three women fired by Dr. Paswall, and ordered a further total of $1.5 million in punitive damages.
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Santana v. G.E.B. Medical Management, 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.
Unnerved by an Employee’s Use of an IV Drip, This Bad Boss Chose to Eliminate Her Job
When Linda Dunnagan developed a life-threatening condition after a decade of service in local government, she expected her supervisor to show some concern.
Instead, he showed her the door.
Ms. Dunnagan had been hospitalized for a serious infection, and returned to work with an intravenous drip that she used to administer her own medication. The drip didn’t affect her performance as comptroller of Madison County, Ill., but evidently it unsettled her boss, county treasurer Kurt Prenzler.
After seeing her with the drip, Mr. Prenzler urged Ms. Dunnagan to retire, according to court testimony. When she demurred, he eliminated her job and offered her a choice between demotion and retirement.
Kurt Prenzler is our new “Bad Boss of the Month.”
Ms. Dunnagan retired under protest and filed suit in federal court. In February, a jury awarded her $450,000 in damages, finding that Mr. Prenzler’s actions violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. Madison County taxpayers are on the hook for the damages award, and possibly also for Ms. Dunnagan’s legal fees; county lawyers have asked for a reduction in the verdict.
Ms. Dunnagan wasn’t considering retirement in 2012 when she entered hospital for a serious infection. By then she had worked as county comptroller for 10 years, suffering from rheumatoid arthritis but often exceeding expectations despite her impairments. She hoped to work for at least two more years.
Mr. Prenzler had been Ms. Dunnagan’s boss since 2010, when he was first elected as county treasurer; in court documents he said he had been unaware of her disability.
After getting out of the hospital, Ms. Dunnagan returned to work in August 2012. For months afterward she gave herself medication twice daily via an IV drip, as instructed by her doctor, but this didn’t interfere with her duties — a fact acknowledged by Mr. Prenzler in court documents.
Still, Ms. Dunnagan testified, her boss seemed agitated by her use of the drip, which she needed to stave off complications. Mr. Prenzler admitted he was concerned about “risk of contagions” to other employees, even though Ms. Dunnagan’s doctor had cleared her to work without restrictions.
It was around that time, according to Ms. Dunnagan, that she was instructed to train someone else to do her job.
In November Ms. Dunnagan was hospitalized once more but quickly returned — along with her IV drip. This time Mr. Prenzler called a meeting with the county’s human resources director. According to Ms. Dunnagan, Mr. Prenzler pressured her to retire and seek disability benefits.
Mr. Prenzler said he just wanted “to make sure she was aware of the benefits she was entitled to.”
Ms. Dunnagan told others she feared she was being pushed out because of her disability. And indeed, a few weeks later Mr. Prenzler announced that he had decided to eliminate her position and divide her responsibilities among two other people. He offered her a new position that paid almost 40% less; deprived her of an office; and had a lesser title — “Assistant Accounting Manager and Real Estate Manager.”
Mr. Prenzler framed the change as part of a broader cost-cutting campaign. In her lawsuit, however, Ms. Dunnagan argued that was just a pretext for discrimination. She sought damages for her lost income and benefits, including a richer pension she would have received had she retired at a later date, and also for the distress and humiliation she suffered.
The jury found in her favor and awarded Ms. Dunnagan $450,000 — an amount that quickly became a political football, as Mr. Prenzler had earlier refused a settlement offer for far less.
Mr. Prenzler now believes taxpayers should give him a promotion: In November, he’s on the ballot to become chairman of the county board. He told a local newspaper that he disagrees with the verdict and expects the county to pursue an appeal.
“I promised to cut my budget,” he said, “and I did.”
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Dunnagan v. Madison County Treasurer’s Office. 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.
This Bad Boss Pitted His Staff Against His Only Black Firefighter
Vernon Creswell was shaking as he made a pot of coffee in the kitchen of his new firehouse.
The emergency responder had just met Greg Mowad, a white battalion chief, and gotten a taste of what he would face as the lone African American in the fire department of Montebello, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles.
"Hey bud," said Mr. Mowad, who was relaxing in front of Fox News. "I know you'll agree with me on this one. There is good blacks and there is bad blacks, and bad blacks are ni**ers."
As Mr. Creswell later recalled in a deposition, his new superior officer criticized local black fire chiefs and concluded: "All those Compton ni**ers are cut from the same cloth." Mr. Creswell had just moved from the nearby Compton fire department, as Mr. Mowad knew.
Greg Mowad is our new "Bad Boss of the Month."
After enduring several years of tension, Mr. Creswell sued the City of Montebello; a state jury awarded the experienced firefighter-paramedic more than $935,000 in damages for racial harassment and retaliation. In February 2016 the trial judge awarded him a further $1.5 million in legal fees.
Mr. Mowad may have been Mr. Creswell's boldest antagonist in Montebello, but he was not alone. On Mr. Creswell's very first day on the job, for instance, battalion chief Rick Lynsky told Mr. Creswell he had opposed his hiring and said, "You're not going to fit in here — you're an outsider," according to testimony.
Other firefighters told Mr. Creswell that Mr. Mowad and fellow supervisors had referred to him as a "ni**er" and other epithets. Accounts vary, but witnesses also said that either Mr. Mowad or Mr. Lynsky — irritated at Mr. Creswell's use of leave — advised other firefighters to take the black man "out back" and "beat the crap out of him."
When Mr. Creswell heard about some of these incidents, he testified in court, he "wanted to throw up." He went to Montebello's top fire chief to voice his dismay, but said the chief minimized the threats — his top brass was just "running their mouths," he said.
Mr. Creswell filed a complaint with California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which ultimately led to the lawsuit and jury award. Separately, Montebello launched an investigation that would conclude that Mr. Mowad indeed had used racial slurs in the firehouse. According to a Montebello fire captain, Mr. Mowad was infuriated at this turn of events. "If I go down," he threatened, "the whole department is going down." Everyone in the department used the n-word, Mr. Mowad asserted.
Mr. Mowad had a history of seeing his workplace through a racial lens: Earlier in his career he had filed a discrimination case of his own — in nearby Anaheim, Calif., where he was passed over for a promotion that went to a black man.
Meanwhile Mr. Creswell faced escalating harassment and retaliation, according to testimony. After applying for a position as acting fire captain, for instance, he was given a different test than three non-black candidates — and told he had failed. He was denied a chance to take refresher courses in strike-team leadership, a prestigious duty he had previously earned. And even though he was a veteran firefighter who enjoyed being a mentor, he was denied the chance to train new firefighters.
Mr. Creswell also was warned not to wear department-approved gear when he exercised at the station: Mr. Lynsky said the standard beanie cap made him look like a "thug," he said.
At trial, the jury awarded Mr. Creswell $185,150 in economic damages for unlawful retaliation — and $750,000 in non-economic damages for racial harassment. He remains a firefighter in Montebello.
And Mr. Mowad? According to court documents, he was placed on paid leave for more than a year, until shortly before the trial. Montebello was poised to fire him for his use of racial slurs, but eventually decided to allow him to "retire in lieu of termination" — with a pension and no disciplinary notes on his record.
There was no investigative finding about Mr. Lynsky, who also retired from the department.
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Creswell v. City of Montebello. 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.