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Hunger Games

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.

» Read the opinion of California’s Court of Appeal
» Read Mr. Nickel’s complaint


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.

To Hire a Predator

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.

» Read the EEOC's civil complaint
» Read the housekeepers' complaint in intervention


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.

Unfair Labor Practice

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.

» Ms. Rodriguez’s testimony about the aftermath of her firing


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.

Bad Drug Reaction

Unnerved by an Employee’s Use of an IV Drip, This Bad Boss Chose to Eliminate Her Job

Photo Credit: wavebreakmedia

Photo Credit: wavebreakmedia

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.”

» Ms. Dunnagan’s Complaint
» A local paper’s roundup of Madison County’s legal woes


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.

Trial by Fire

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.

» Mr. Creswell’s First Amended Complaint
» Jury’s Special Verdict


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.

The Price of Crude

Even an Employee’s Child Suffered the Lewdness of This Bad Boss

At any workplace, the boss sets the tone. Jim McKinney was no exception: His Dallas-based medical company was rife with sex talk and catcalling — much of it from himself.

Even by his own crass standard, however, Mr. McKinney hit a new low on Bring Your Child To Work Day. Upon meeting an employee’s teenage daughter, according to a deposition, he sized up the child and said, in front of his team: “Wow — for being 15, your knockers are very big.”

The employee, Bonnie Shaw, was mortified and told Mr. McKinney he was out of line; he just laughed. Ms. Shaw brought her concerns to Human Resources and was fired shortly afterward.

Jim McKinney is our new “Bad Boss of the Month.”

After hearing from Ms. Shaw and others, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed suit against EmCare, the parent company of Mr. McKinney’s AnesthesiaCare division. At trial a jury awarded $499,000 to the aggrieved former employees; EmCare is fighting the verdict.

The remark about Ms. Shaw’s daughter was far from Mr. McKinney’s only offense. “Every time” her boss was around, Ms. Shaw testified, he had something sexually suggestive to say. Sometimes he’d ask her to lower her neckline to show more cleavage; sometimes he’d ask her to lift up her skirt so he could see her “behind.”

Ms. Shaw said she had complained before to HR, but that nothing had happened. After the incident with her child, which had left her visibly upset and shaking, she complained again. So did co-worker Luke Trahan, who had witnessed Mr. McKinney’s misconduct. Within weeks, both were fired without any indication of poor performance on the job.

Also fired after complaining was Mr. McKinney’s administrative assistant, Gloria Stokes, who had raised concerns about the sexual comments that happened “every time Mr. McKinney was in the office — multiple times a day.”

During her job interview, Ms. Stokes said, Mr. McKinney told her that he hoped she wasn’t the kind of person who would run to HR “every five minutes.” Once hired, she found out why: Mr. McKinney often made lecherous comments, such as saying Ms. Stokes was “busting out” of her shirt. When getting a cold soda, he would tell Ms. Stokes he was “hot and horny.”

Mr. McKinney also talked dirty with men in the office, often in Ms. Stokes’ presence. With one male colleague, she said, “p*nis size came up frequently,” as did wife-swapping braggadocio. In court, Mr. McKinney struggled to explain a series of e-mails that evidently included a photo of a p*nis tattoo: Possibly the words “deep or shallow” referred to an EmCare account, he testified. Asked what “big boys welcome” meant, he had no suggestions.

In court, the EEOC excoriated Mr. McKinney for being more like a “teenage boy going through puberty than a high-level executive in charge of an entire department.” EmCare lawyers defended him as a “character” and a “joker” but not a harasser or retaliator.

Eventually, however, Mr. McKinney resigned from EmCare after a business dinner at which he got drunk, accosted a female employee as “a bitch and a whore,” and (depending on the account) yanked her ponytail. Mr. McKinney claimed he was so inebriated he had no memory of the incident; he was drowning his sorrows after learning that EmCare wanted to name a physician to his position.

For its part, EmCare argued that the dinner was “the first, last, and only time Mr. McKinney crossed over [a] line.” The jury disagreed: It found that Ms. Stokes had been sexually harassed; that Mr. Trahan and Ms. Shaw — the mother whose child Mr. McKinney humiliated — had faced unlawful retaliation; and that EmCare should pay the three former employees a half-million dollars in combined damages.

» EEOC Complaint
» Partial trial transcript: Mr. McKinney’s testimony on “p*nis related” e-mails


The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in EEOC v. EmCare, 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.

“I Have a Gun”

This Bad Boss Frightened Employees with a Fake Armed Robbery

Harry Starkey's staff had been trained on how to respond to an armed robbery. But did they really know what to do?

Mr. Starkey decided to test them. His brainstorm: Stage a fake stickup at the office of the West Kern Water District (WKWD) in Taft, Calif., where he worked as general manager.

On the morning of the drill, Gary Hamilton — a subordinate of Mr. Starkey — donned a mask, sunglasses, and a hat. He approached clerk Kathy Lee, whose job was to accept payments from WKWD customers, shoved a paper bag at her, and pointed to a note written on it —


No one had told Ms. Lee about the holdup plan. Fearing for her life, she complied and the "robber" fled with the cash. Even after WKWD managers revealed the scheme, Ms. Lee was traumatized, crying, and nauseous. She couldn’t return to work for months.

Harry Starkey is our new "Bad Boss of the Month."

Ms. Lee sued for emotional distress and assault. After a nine-day trial, a state jury awarded her $360,000 in damages — but then the judge ordered a retrial because, she said, the jurors were improperly instructed. The case remains on hold pending the ruling of an appeals court.

At the trial, Mr. Starkey claimed that his initial idea for the drill was far tamer: No secrets, no disguises, no messages about guns. Mainly he wanted to know whether clerks like Ms. Lee could locate their silent alarm button.

But Mr. Starkey delegated the exercise to subordinates — and then stood by as things got out of hand.

WKWD supervisor Ginny Miller was one of the drill’s planners. Together with the utility's safety manager, she decided that "realism" was key. Ms. Miller first asked her nephew to play the robber, but that fell through. At the last moment she recruited Mr. Hamilton as the attacker.

Mr. Hamilton was reluctant. Shortly before playing his role, he went to Mr. Starkey's office to express unease about staging a full-blown fake robbery. But Mr. Starkey admits he "consented" even after hearing about the scheme — and indeed, planned to watch it unfold in real time via security cameras.

The holdup man was reassured. At 10 a.m. on July 29, 2011, he put on his disguise and entered the utility's office to "rob" Ms. Lee. Ms. Miller stood guard outside to keep real WKWD customers from getting mixed up in the stunt.

Ms. Lee "was justified in being scared" by Mr. Hamilton, said Mr. Starkey. As the clerk reached for her panic button — as she had been trained to do — Mr. Hamilton banged on the counter to startle her. Intimidated, she skipped the alarm and went for the cash drawer instead. She thought Mr. Hamilton was "going to shoot" her, she testified.

Meanwhile another employee panicked and fled to call the Taft police department.

When Taft police chief Ed Whiting arrived on the scene he was "furious" and said the fake robbery had endangered both WKWD employees and the public, according to Ms. Lee's lawyer. At trial, Chief Whiting testified that any robbery is a "high stress event" and that witnesses "sometimes suffer heart attacks just because of the event."

Even in a mock robbery, said the chief, "there is real potential for injury or death."

Ms. Lee certainly was traumatized: According to her complaint, she sought counseling for recurring nightmares, depression, and insomnia. She also suffered from headaches, nausea, and loss of appetite; to this day, she is fearful of hooded figures. She took almost four months of medical leave before returning to her job.

At trial, Mr. Starkey was asked whether he took responsibility for what happened; he testified that he did. Nonetheless, he chose to discipline several of his subordinates, including the reluctant robber Mr. Hamilton, whom he called "reckless."

Meanwhile Mr. Starkey himself was not disciplined for the incident by his superiors, the WKWD board of directors.

» Ms. Lee's First Amended Complaint


The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Lee v. West Kern Water District. 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.

Masking the Problem

This Bad Boss Said the Only Black Employee in Her Office Stank — Literally

Imagine if your boss put on a gas mask when you were around. You might take it personally.

It happened to Valerie Davis, a paralegal working for a state agency in St. Petersburg, Fla. One of her supervising attorneys, Suzanne Hurley, began wearing a conspicuous pink respirator at work because, she claimed, Ms. Davis wore perfume or another "noxious" substance that caused her to gag.

"I could smell her coming down the hallway," Ms. Hurley said in a deposition.

But Ms. Davis, the only African American in the office, says she never wore perfume: Just unscented lotion. She had recently filed a discrimination grievance, however — and that seemed to trigger Ms. Hurley's allergies.

Suzanne Hurley is our latest “Bad Boss of the Month.”

On May 18, 2015, a three-judge federal appeals panel upheld a $240,000 jury award to Ms. Davis for the anguish she suffered from Ms. Hurley's retaliation. In addition to wearing the mask, Ms. Hurley had accused the well-liked employee of being lazy, inept, and unable to write or spell. Each allegation conformed to "common racial stereotypes," noted Ms. Davis' lawyers.

The state agency denied any racism or retaliation, but conceded that "it is undisputed" that Ms. Hurley was "difficult." Indeed, the trial judge called this the agency's "only real defense" — the idea that Ms. Hurley treated everyone badly.

It all started when Ms. Davis asked for a promotion.

Before Ms. Hurley arrived at the Florida Agency for Healthcare Administration (ACHA), Ms. Davis was known as a diligent, quick-to-smile paralegal specialist. A senior co-worker had retired months before, leaving an open slot; as a result, Ms. Davis was serving as the only support staff for four lawyers in the office.

Ms. Davis applied for the empty job, but the promotion went instead to a white woman, Cathy Keith, who was from a different department and had no recent legal experience. Ms. Hurley was among those who reviewed the job candidates.

Ms. Davis filed a discrimination grievance with the AHCA Human Resources department. And around that time, she also got a new co-supervisor — Ms. Hurley.

At first, the women got along OK. They would walk around the lake outside the office and talk; Ms. Hurley even baked Ms. Davis a birthday cake. But after the state began investigating the grievance, asking questions of Ms. Hurley, Ms. Davis felt relations chill. The attorney became critical and curt, claiming to observe “deficiencies” in Ms. Davis’ work performance, including “numerous grammar and spelling mistakes.”

Ms. Davis previously had reported only to senior attorney Jim Harris, who regularly gave her high marks on her evaluations. Now Ms. Hurley gave her a far harsher rating: 1.37, a score that usually would be a prelude to firing.

Stung, Ms. Davis sent a rebuttal in which she said that “discrimination and retaliation are rampant at this office.” Ms. Hurley snarked that Ms. Davis must have gotten someone else to write it: “Unlike Ms. Davis, the person who wrote her rebuttal can spell, punctuate, and write using correct English.”

And then there was the mask, which Ms. Hurley wore only for Ms. Davis.

Ms. Davis didn't wear scent at the office, but others did: Ms. Keith wore strong perfume, the trial court heard, and one of the male attorneys wore cologne and aftershave. Ms. Hurley never wore her pink mask around either of those people, however, even though both also were smokers — another declared sensitivity.

Ms. Davis felt shamed: It was “embarrassing to walk into an attorney’s office that you’re trying to work hard for and see her with this pink thing on," she said. "It was hurtful and it brought my self-esteem down."

She became “isolated” in the office and stopped going out to dinner with friends. Some days she didn’t want to eat at all, and her weight fluctuated. “All I want to do [since then] is sleep,” she testified.

Ms. Hurley had drawn a complaint from a black assistant at a previous job, too, yet she insisted that neither race nor retaliation was a factor here. AHCA agreed, but otherwise declined to salvage her reputation. During closing arguments, the AHCA lawyer acknowledged that Ms. Hurley "doesn't get along, frankly, with a lot of people … because she is what she is" — which may be, he later indicated, a "crazy person."

In its verdict, the jury found that race wasn't a factor when Ms. Davis was passed over for the promotion. But it unanimously found that her grievance had resulted in “materially adverse treatment,” and that she was entitled to nearly a quarter-million dollars in damages.

The trial judge said the evidence supporting such a verdict was "strong" — and the appeals court later affirmed that justice was done.

» Ms. Davis' Second Amended Complaint
» Trial Judge's Order Directing the Entry of Judgment
» Decision on Appeal (11th Circuit)


The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Davis v. Florida Agency for Health Care Administration. 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.

Rx for Discrimination

With a Backdated Firing, This Bad Boss Hit a New Low in Age Bias

Cody Berguson had laid the groundwork — he was ready to fire James King.

But Mr. King was unavailable: The 65-year-old pharmacist was caring for his wife, Trudy, who was hospitalized for surgery.

Mr. Berguson, a pharmacy supervisor for health giant CVS, waited a few days. Then he called in Mr. King and, in a two-minute meeting, terminated him.

The kicker: Mr. Berguson backdated the termination to before Trudy King’s surgery, which meant that CVS-supplied insurance no longer covered her hospitalization. The Kings had to pay their medical bills with credit cards.

Cody Berguson is our latest “Bad Boss of the Month.”

Earlier this year, a federal jury found CVS liable for age discrimination and awarded Mr. King more than $1 million in damages — then doubled it by finding that CVS “willfully” violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, for a final award of more than $2.1 million.

CVS is fighting the verdict.

At the time of his firing, Mr. King had worked at the CVS Pharmacy in Pell City, Ala., for more than seven years. Although he was 65, he had no intention of retiring: “I wanted to work until I died,” he said at trial, joking that his wife “didn’t want me around the house.”

In reality Mr. King enjoyed working and needed to pay for the education of his daughter, who was still in high school and planned to go to college.

Mr. Berguson, however, seemed to have a different plan.

Soon after Mr. King’s 65th birthday, the CVS supervisor started what Judge Virginia Emerson Hopkins characterized as a “retirement-related inquisition,” repeatedly asking Mr. King pointed questions like “Don’t you have enough money to buy an annuity and retire?”

Mr. Berguson also began what Mr. King called “a constant barrage of unjustified and petty criticisms,” writing up the pharmacist for sins including a “bad attitude.”

Before long, Mr. Berguson and another regional official called Mr. King into a meeting and told the pharmacist he was under investigation for allowing other employees to use his “manager card” for voiding transactions, among other things.

They also faulted him for taking too many smoke breaks — they had reviewed an entire day’s video and tracked his smoking to the minute — and for failing to properly document his purchase of two Diet Pepsis.

According to Mr. King, Mr. Berguson called him a “thief,” a “liar,” and “lazy” — and topped off the encounter by asking, “Now, what about retirement?”

Fearing the worst, Mr. King complained to Mr. Berguson’s boss and also called a company hotline to say he felt like a victim of age discrimination. But CVS did nothing — and things escalated.

One day when Mr. King was not working, a younger pharmacist filled a narcotic drug prescription via the store’s drive-through lane. It was for the wife of a local judge but, based on later investigation, was picked up by an unauthorized person.

A few days later, the irate judge — a longtime customer well-known to CVS staff — arrived at the pharmacy to get his wife’s pain medication. Seeking to make things right, Mr. King gave him replacement pills without forcing the judge to contact a doctor first.

In a prior incident of this type, CVS had sorted out details later. This time, however, Mr. Berguson told Mr. King he had violated state law and suspended the pharmacist without pay. CVS referred the incident to the Alabama State Board of Pharmacy — and reported it to local police.

A stunned Mr. King gave a statement to the pharmacy board investigator; he was told he’d be called for a hearing if the matter went any further. Neither the board nor the police ultimately took any action against him; Mr. King remains a pharmacist in good standing.

In the meantime, however, Mr. Berguson had sent an e-mail to CVS officials: “Considering … this latest issue, one month after meeting with him about the Pepsi issue … I would think it’s time to relieve Jim of his duties as an employee of CVS no matter what the state board decides to do with him.”

CVS approved the termination without waiting for further facts, and Mr. Berguson tried to implement it immediately — only to find Mr. King tending to his hospitalized wife.

As jurors heard, it wasn’t the first case of age discrimination involving Mr. Berguson. That’s “not coincidental,” Mr. King’s lawyers said: Under direction from CVS to hire a quota of newly-minted pharmacists, the supervisor had to create slots for cheaper, younger new hires across a 23-store territory from Auburn to Birmingham.

In a 2013 jury trial against CVS, veteran pharmacist Roger Harris won $800,000 on similar claims of Mr. Berguson's prejudice.

Like Mr. King, Mr. Harris had been subjected to ageist heckling by Mr. Berguson; like Mr. King, he had received multiple write-ups over the six months before being fired; like Mr. King, he was terminated at age 65.

There was no sick wife in the case, but Mr. Harris suffered his own cruel flourish: Mr. Berguson fired him on his 65th birthday.

» Mr. King's Amended Complaint


The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in King v. CVS Caremark Corp. 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.

Mentorship Gone Sour

After Her Protégée Fell In Love With a Woman, This Executive Turned Into a Bad Boss

Diana Castle was more than a boss to Shelly Flood—she was her official mentor, tapped to help Ms. Flood advance at Bank of America.

That made what happened next all the worse.

Ms. Castle, a senior bank official, had been paired with Ms. Flood, a customer service employee, in a Bank of America mentoring program for women. The two clicked at first, discussing their shared experiences as working moms and Ms. Flood’s path to promotion. Ms. Flood applied for a job in Ms. Castle’s department, and Ms. Castle hired her.

Things fell apart, however, after Ms. Castle learned that Ms. Flood was romantically involved with a woman. According to documents in a lawsuit filed by Ms. Flood, Ms. Castle launched “a campaign of harassment and discrimination” that ended with the firing of Ms. Flood from the bank’s operation in Belfast, Maine—and the firing of Ms. Flood’s partner, too, from a separate company.

Diana Castle is our latest “Bad Boss of the Month.”

Earlier this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that a reasonable jury could hold Bank of America liable for a hostile work environment caused by Ms. Castle’s “constant and disapproving scrutiny.” Rather than face trial, Bank of America opted in August 2015 to settle the case.

The trouble started after Shelly Flood—then called Shelly O’Donnell—started dating her wife-to-be, Keri Flood, who worked for a janitorial service that cleaned the bank. The two women had met in 2009 while on a smoke break; Shelly took Keri’s last name after a commitment ceremony in August 2010.

Stories differ on how Ms. Castle learned of the romance, but around April 2010 the executive’s “demeanor shifted,” according to Shelly Flood—becoming cold and targeting the junior woman’s relationship.

In a deposition, Ms. Castle agrees that she asked middle managers to monitor the couple’s behavior “to make sure that [Shelly Flood] didn’t have distractions.” Whenever Keri Flood approached her desk, says Shelly Flood, a manager “would stand up and watch me the whole time.”

Ms. Castle complained about Keri Flood’s “hanging out” both directly to Shelly Flood and to the bank’s liaison to the janitorial service. Besides distracting bank employees, she said, Keri Flood “didn’t seem to be doing a very good job cleaning.”

Ms. Castle’s comments resulted in a reprimand for Keri Flood but also a slap to Ms. Castle, whose superior intervened at Shelly Flood’s request and said he had no problem with Keri Flood visiting Shelly’s desk.

According to Shelly Flood, Ms. Castle’s actions kept escalating: The executive retroactively downgraded Ms. Flood’s performance, for instance, and forced a manager to issue her an erroneous warning. She told Ms. Flood not to participate in LGBT meetings during work hours—despite being part of the LGBT group herself. (Ms. Castle identifies as heterosexual and is married to a man, but says she has “numerous” gay friends.)

Shelly Flood took the hint: She ended the mentor relationship and began looking for another job at Bank of America—only to have Ms. Castle sabotage her effort by contacting at least one hiring manager to say Ms. Flood wasn’t ready for more responsibility.

Finally, Ms. Flood says, she couldn’t endure any more and stopped going to work. She sent a letter to Ms. Castle explaining that she believed she had been “retaliated against and judged on my personal life’s choices.”

Ms. Castle recommended that Bank of America follow its procedures for job abandonment, and Shelly Flood was terminated.

Shortly afterward, Ms. Castle reported an incident in which Keri Flood supposedly tried to push a pregnant bank employee down a stairwell. Keri Flood denies that the altercation ever happened—but Bank of America still banned her from its premises, and her employer fired her as a result.

Both Floods sued. Among other things, Keri Flood claimed that Bank of America defamed her and interfered with her employment; the defendants settled with her in 2013 after a trial became inevitable.

Shelly Flood’s discrimination claims remain open, but will be dismissed this month when a settlement is completed to avoid a trial in which, according to First Circuit judge Kermit Lipez, a reasonable jury could find “that Castle harbored animus toward Flood” and that the bank “actually fired Flood because of her sexual orientation.”

» Opinion of First Circuit


The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Flood v. Bank of America Corp. 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.

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About This Site

The Employment Law Group, P.C. produces this site to illustrate the continuing relevance of employee protection laws.

R. Scott Oswald
Managing Principal
The Employment Law Group

Contributing Writer
Ann Oldenburg

Contributing Editor
Laurence Hooper

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