This Proselytizing Bad Boss Fired His Employee After She Asked Off for the Jewish Holidays
In 2016, attorney Kimberly Edelstein asked for time off to observe some of the most sacred days on the Jewish calendar.
“Holy cow!” exclaimed her Christian boss, Gregory Stephens, according to testimony in a case filed later by Edelstein. “Eight days?!”
Edelstein was terminated shortly afterward by Stephens, an Ohio state judge who was also a Baptist preacher and a door-to-door proselytizer. Stephens believes, he testified, that Jews and other people who don’t accept Jesus as their savior are destined for hell.
At trial, Stephens said that neither Edelstein’s religion nor her leave request (which he granted before firing her) was a factor in her termination. Instead, he told jurors, he was punishing poor work behavior by Edelstein that was largely reported by another employee — the judge’s now-deceased judicial assistant, who Edelstein testified had hissed at her as she gathered her belongings:
“Hey, Jew, get your stuff packed yet?”
The judge didn’t investigate these negative reports about Edelstein before firing her, he testified; he saw no reason to doubt his assistant’s motives.
Gregory Stephens is our latest Bad Boss of the Month.
Edelstein filed a lawsuit against Stephens in federal court, claiming religious discrimination and other wrongdoing. On February 3, 2023, after a nine-day trial at which Edelstein represented herself against her former boss — in part, she testified, because no local attorney wanted to sue a judge — a jury found that Stephens had violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects the religious practice of government employees.
Jurors awarded Edelstein $1.12 million in damages; the case remains in post-trial motions.
Edelstein wasn’t raised Jewish, she testified, but she chose Judaism after taking a college class on world religions. She learned Hebrew and now prays in it; she later married an Orthodox Jewish man and still keeps a kosher house — two complete sets of dishes, for example, one for meat and one for dairy.
At trial, she educated the Cincinnati jury on the basics of her faith, which she described as “a life of ritual.” She evidently felt a need to dispel some offensive stereotypes: Orthodox Jews, she told jurors, “are incredibly generous. They are not at all stingy.”
The first member of her family to get a bachelor’s degree, Edelstein also earned a master’s degree and then — after her plan for a State Department career was derailed by a Clinton-era hiring freeze — a law degree, which she funded with scholarships, loans, and by working as a barista and at a Subway shop.
Around 2007, Edelstein was hired as a staff attorney and magistrate for Judge Patricia Oney of the Butler County Court of Common Pleas in Hamilton, Ohio, a city on the northern outskirts of Cincinnati. Her duties included drafting decisions for Oney; conducting status reports; and hearing certain types of cases, such as stalking protection orders.
Edelstein worked easily with her judge to accommodate the demands of her faith, she testified, including a period each fall during which she had to take off eight workdays, scattered across a few weeks that start with Rosh Hashanah.
By 2014, however, Judge Oney began having medical issues. Edelstein testified that she stepped up to help, handling Oney’s entire civil docket, including jury trials, until the judge’s sudden retirement at the end of 2015. What followed was a revolving cast of visiting judges, while Edelstein “prayed a lot” for a permanent replacement who would keep her on staff.
Finally, in March 2016, Greg Stephens arrived at the court after being appointed as Oney’s replacement by Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
“I was thrilled … that I was going to get a judge,” Edelstein told jurors. “And hopefully — hopefully — I could keep my job.”
Stephens had spent most of his career as a criminal prosecutor. He brought along two of his own staff: Melinda Barger as judicial assistant and Jamie Wilson as bailiff. None of the newcomers had much experience in civil cases, and Stephens opted to keep Edelstein in her role. Edelstein testified that she and the new judge agreed to give each other a three-month notice if things weren’t working out.
At first, the transition was normal. Seeking connection with Barger and Wilson, Edelstein opened up about her religious obligations — talking about the need to deep-clean her house, down to the smallest breadcrumb, in preparation for Passover — but was rattled by a jokey, disrespectful response to her faith.
“It made me uncomfortable,” she testified, “and so I just didn’t talk to them about [my religious practice] anymore. … But other than that, we didn’t have a poor relationship.”
Relations with Stephens seemed solid, too, apart from some gripes about her cluttered office. Edelstein handled much of his civil docket, she told jurors, since he was more familiar with criminal work. At a birthday lunch for bailiff Wilson, the judge complimented Edelstein’s work.
Barely two weeks later, however, she was fired.
Before asking for time off to observe the upcoming Jewish holidays, Edelstein testified, she’d never discussed her religion with Stephens — and she was genuinely shocked by his “yelling” in response. Stephens could be touchy and exacting, she told jurors, once blowing up because a document listed his name with a wrong middle initial, but he was fundamentally “a very quiet person.”
At the time, Edelstein didn’t know the details of Stephen’s Baptist faith and preaching. In court, she put him on the stand to explain it all: His years on the pulpit, his concept of heaven and hell, his door-to-door attempts to engage non-believers, his view of Judaism, his opinion on whether those who don’t follow Jesus are damned or just “lost.”
(Either way, he testified, they end up in hell, possibly cast into a “lake of fire.”)
Did he have any Jewish friends, she asked? Maybe two or three “at best,” he replied, but he didn’t know if they were observant.
Then he corrected himself: “I actually did fail to point out, Jesus himself … was an observant Jew.”
And did he consider Jesus to be a Jewish friend?
Stephens acknowledged that he’d set the gears turning on Edelstein’s termination almost immediately after she requested her leave, but he insisted that the events were unrelated. He fired her on a Monday morning, the second workday after her request, saying only that she didn’t “fit in,” Edelstein testified.
After litigation started, Stephens offered more specific reasons. Based partly on reports from his assistant Barger, who he said “wouldn’t have any reason to misrepresent something like that,” he cited Edelstein’s insubordination, procrastination, rudeness, and conflicts with Barger and other staff — many of which he couldn’t recall in detail, and none of which he flagged, tried to fix, or documented in real time, he conceded in court.
“I found you very disagreeable and difficult to work with,” he told Edelstein in front of the jurors. “You had a very contentious personality [that] I knew was not going to change.”
(Assistant Barger, who had supposedly hissed at Edelstein as she left, died in 2021. Many of her descriptions of Edelstein’s work behavior were contradicted by the testimony of other witnesses, according to court documents — including by bailiff Wilson, who described Barger to jurors as “abrasive” and “nasty.”)
The firing itself had taken place in Edelstein’s office, with Barger “smirking” behind the judge as he delivered the news, Edelstein testified. In shock, Edelstein begged to be allowed resign with three month’s notice, but to no avail: She was told to leave by noon.
The ensuing months and years were very difficult, she testified. Previously her family’s main provider, she now struggled to feed them, falling back on charity from her own religious community.
“They helped me with the food pantry,” she testified. “They helped feed my children. We couldn’t make rent one month — they paid my rent.”
Work was hard to find. According to her lawsuit, Stephens’ colleagues were bad-mouthing her around town. “Within a week, it seemed that the networking possibilities were closed off to me,” she testified.
Without a government job, Edelstein’s student loans no longer were headed for forgiveness. She and her husband, who worked at Wal-Mart, sold off furniture and other belongings. Tensions grew within the family; she developed depression and diabetes; and eventually her husband left her, she testified.
Desperate for money, Edelstein applied for janitorial jobs and even approached the local McDonald’s — she had worked at the fast-food chain during college — only for the manager there to laugh at her, she told jurors.
“He said, ‘You’re a lawyer? … What did you do wrong?‘”
Stung, she considered altering her résumé to delete all of her legal experience, just so she’d be taken more seriously by low-wage employers. Finally, just a few months before the trial, she began working as a sales consultant. She now earns $55,000 a year, she testified, well below her 2016 salary at the Butler County court.
After finding in her favor on February 4, jurors awarded Edelstein $835,000 in back pay, plus a further $250,000 for her emotional and other non-monetary harms. They levied a further $35,000 in punitive damages against Stephens for “conduct which was malicious or in reckless disregard of [Edelstein’s] rights.”
Stephens remains listed as an active judge in Butler County. His former bailiff Jamie Wilson testified at trial that she finally quit her position last year after working with him for more than two decades, telling jurors that she had tired of behavior that, according to her, Stephens himself acknowledged as “toxic” and “destructive.”
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Edelstein v. Stephens. 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.
Kimberly Edelstein represented herself in the case.
This Bad Boss Created a Hostile Workplace that Triggered a Mother’s Protective Instincts
At first, Nexamije Qorrolli thought that her old employer would be a good place for her daughter to start a career as a dental hygienist.
Instead, Fortesa Qorrolli, barely out of her teens, landed in a highly sexualized atmosphere at Metropolitan Dental Associates in Manhattan, N.Y., according to a lawsuit filed by the daughter — even as her mother, who had previously worked at a different MDA location, rejoined the practice and tried to shield her daughter from harassment.
Mother and daughter, who relied on their jobs to support their family of political refugees, testified that MDA’s office on Broadway was overseen by Mario Orantes, whom they labelled in court as a predator and “animal.” According to the daughter’s complaint, Mr. Orantes would pressure female MDA employees to accept his advances, taking them into vacant examination rooms and rewarding those who surrendered while penalizing anyone who refused.
At trial, Mr. Orantes denied any harassment of his staff. The judge directed jurors to focus narrowly on evidence of the office manager’s behavior toward the younger Ms. Qorrolli, who recounted a number of incidents, including a time when Mr. Orantes grabbed her in an elevator and commented approvingly on her body’s firmness.
The elder Ms. Qorrolli, meanwhile, had decided to shadow her daughter whenever Mr. Orantes pulled her aside, hovering nearby to the irritation of Mr. Orantes, who called her “like Hitler” for her policing, according to testimony.
Both Qorrollis finally quit the dental practice after six years of pressure and gaslighting, according to their testimony. By the end, daughter Fortesa was still fending off Mr. Orantes but had spiraled into depression, panic attacks, and suicidal thoughts, jurors heard.
Mario Orantes is our Bad Boss of the Month.
Two separate federal juries found MDA liable to Fortesa Qorrolli for allowing a hostile work environment. The first panel awarded her about $2.6 million on three claims, but in December 2022 the judge ordered a retrial because, in her view, jurors had improperly punished MDA after hearing numerous allegations about Mr. Orantes that they weren’t supposed to assess for their truth.
At the second trial, in February 2023, a jury again found in favor of Ms. Qorrolli, on a single claim. This time the judge controlled evidence more tightly, and jurors awarded only nominal damages.
Last month the judge declined to order a third trial, which Ms. Qorrolli had requested to reconsider the damages award. The second jury was entitled to find the young plaintiff’s testimony “overwrought,” the judge wrote, and to limit damages accordingly.
Ms. Qorrolli is appealing both outcomes, asking for a reinstatement of the original $2.6 million verdict.
The Qorrolli family arrived in the United States from Albania in 1996 with no money, a single suitcase, and three young children, mother Nexamije testified in court. At that time she was a newly qualified dentist fleeing political unrest; Fortesa, her oldest, was just six.
After taking some U.S. exams, Nexamije became a dental assistant and was hired at MDA’s Brooklyn office, originally working at $7 an hour for dentist and MDA owner Paul Cohen. Subsequently she worked for other dentists and attended community college in the Bronx alongside her daughter, who was following in her footsteps. The women qualified as dental hygienists within a year of each other. Nexamije already had a job in Brooklyn, but she pointed Fortesa back to Dr. Cohen, her first U.S. employer.
“I told her, if Dr. Cohen will ask you, you can let him know that you are my daughter,” the mother testified. “Dr. Cohen hired her [on the] spot.”
Fortesa was assigned to a different MDA office, however, in downtown Manhattan, in the periodontal department. She had just turned 20. Soon afterward, her mother joined her: Having reconnected via Fortesa, Dr. Cohen “begged [Nexamije] to quit her job” and return to MDA, the daughter testified.
Both women thrived at first, and their paychecks became crucial to the Qorrolli family, which had just bought a house and had two younger children to support and, later, put through college. “My dad was working,” the daughter told jurors, “but he wasn’t making enough to pay for mortgage and bills. Everything depended on me and my mom.”
They soon attracted the attention of Mr. Orantes, who had started working for MDA at 17 years old, back in the 1980s, and had risen to become Dr. Cohen’s “right arm” after earning “an extreme amount of trust” as an administrator, according to the dentist’s own testimony.
Mr. Orantes was known within the office as a harasser, the younger Ms. Qorrolli told jurors. Several other employees told her that “Mario has sex with anyone and everyone, whoever he lays his eyes on,” she testified. “And if you don’t give in to his sexual desires, then he will make your life a living hell.”
According to Ms. Qorrolli’s complaint and her testimony, Mr. Orantes gave extra pay, easier work, and even free dental treatments to women who “acquiesced” — allegations that Mr. Orantes denied. Ms. Qorrolli testified that she often witnessed him pulling a particular hygienist into a room for about 20 minutes, after which the hygienist would emerge with smeared lipstick. At one point, she told jurors, she opened the lunch room door to find Mr. Orantes and the hygienist “chest to chest,” the woman’s clothing askew.
Toward both Qorrollis, mother and daughter, Mr. Orantes showed a mix of hostility and frustration, the women testified, frequently complaining to Dr. Cohen about the quality of their work but also demanding extra hours — and, when it came to Fortesa, showing sexual interest.
Mr. Orantes touched her in unwelcome ways, Fortesa testified, and made suggestive comments to her “a few times a week.” Sometimes, she testified, he would demean and berate her in front of Dr. Cohen only to offer her insinuating comfort afterward.
“He would kiss me on the cheek, he would tell me that he loved me and that everything was going to be OK, that he was on my side,” she told jurors. “I told him to back off many times. And when … he couldn’t go as far as he’s gone with other women he would just storm out … And then I wouldn’t see him for a day or so until he made another incident and called me upstairs and [again] threatened to fire me in front of Dr. Cohen.”
“Women need someone to fear with authority in their life,” Mr. Orantes told her another time, according to her complaint.
Mother Nexamije, meanwhile, was trying to keep Mr. Orantes away from her daughter. On one occasion, she testified, “I saw Mario putting hands on Tesa, … pulling her inside the room, closing the door. … I was afraid … When I went to open the door and saw him very close to Tesa, Mario slammed the door on me … He hated me because I was trying to protect her.”
In testimony, Mr. Orantes claimed that all his one-on-one interactions with Fortesa Qorrolli were professional, and that Dr. Cohen was often present on speakerphone.
The Qorrollis’ appeals to Dr. Cohen went nowhere, according to court documents, as the MDA owner stood squarely behind his longtime manager — and indeed, denied at trial that Fortesa Qorrolli had ever complained about sexual behavior by Mr. Orantes. The Qorrollis said she finally did, in early 2015; in a deposition that wasn’t allowed into evidence, a fellow employee bolstered their claim.
In another disputed piece of evidence, an anonymous fax arrived at the MDA offices later in 2015 accusing Mr. Orantes of targeting multiple young women employees — and of other wrongdoing besides. Jurors saw this fax during the first trial, but the judge later called that a mistake and excluded the document from the second trial, although she allowed Ms. Qorrolli’s lawyer to describe its general contents.
Dr. Cohen, to whom the fax was addressed, testified that he had investigated the allegations and found them to be untrue.
At trial, Fortesa Qorrolli said she felt “humiliated” by Dr. Cohen’s dismissal of her complaints, testifying that he called her “crazy.”
“I was in shock because I thought he actually cared,” she told jurors. “I trusted him, but he didn’t do anything about it.”
Instead, the cycle of blame and harassment simply continued, she testified: “I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to end my life. The pain was really unbearable.”
At trial, Fortesa’s mother said she was “heartbroken” by the change she saw in her daughter at MDA. The younger Ms. Qorrolli used to be “the light of the family,” according to testimony, but after a few years at MDA, she became withdrawn and prone to anger, ultimately seeking psychological help. Among other things, Fortesa reflexively rubbed at her nose so often that she perforated the cartilage and caused lasting breathing problems, jurors heard.
“I lost my Tesa,” Nexamije told them. “I miss … how she used to be before.”
Finally, in May 2016, Fortesa Qorrolli texted Dr. Cohen and told him that neither woman could work at MDA any longer. “It was either me leaving or completely losing myself there,” she testified. “Even now … I never drive [near the MDA office] because those panic attacks just start kicking in.”
A few months later she filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In 2018, she was cleared to file her federal lawsuit.
After the favorable first trial verdict, U.S. District Court Judge Denise Cote ruled that jurors had reached a valid verdict on liability, but that the damages they awarded — $575,000 in compensation and a further $2 million as punishment — were disproportionate to the facts of the case, and also to benchmarks and awards in comparable cases, indicating a problem that should be solved by a retrial.
The liability finding at the second trial was similarly valid, the judge ruled, but she found no legal basis for vacating the token damages award — a symbolic $1 — as “a miscarriage of justice.”
“[T]he jury may have found that much of [Fortesa] Qorrolli’s highly emotional testimony was incredible or irrelevant to the charges of sexual harassment,” wrote Judge Cote. “Alternatively, the jury could have reasonably concluded that any compensatory damages award would have been purely speculative.”
The case is now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
At least as of late 2022, Mr. Orantes continued to work for MDA, according to testimony. Both the Qorrollis, mother and daughter, found new jobs after their departure from the practice. Last year, Fortesa Qorrolli gave birth to a daughter of her own, Sierra.
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Qorrolli v. Metropolitan Dental Associates, D.D.S. — 225 Broadway, P.C. 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.
Fortesa Qorrolli was represented by Derek Smith Law Group, PLLC in New York.
This Bad Boss Bonded with a Sales Star Over Mani-Pedis — But Was It All a Veneer?
At first, Jennifer Harris’ boss at FedEx Corporate Services seemed an ally: The two women swapped tales of their families, hung out at team dinners, and even hit the salon together for manicures and pedicures.
But then Michelle Lamb, the new director of FedEx’s “Longhorn” region in southern Texas, suggested that Ms. Harris — a driven sales manager who had broken college records as a relay sprinter — should consider taking a voluntary demotion because she wasn’t an adequate leader, according to a lawsuit.
As a top performer who had recently helped her boss to win a sales award, Ms. Harris felt “blindsided” by Ms. Lamb, she testified at trial. The only notable difference between her and her peers, as far as she could see, was her skin color: She was the only Black sales manager on the team. Ms. Lamb is white.
Ms. Harris declined to step down and instead asked FedEx to investigate possible bias. Not long after, she started getting discipline from Ms. Lamb — the first-ever demerits of her career, according to testimony.
After raising more concerns, this time about possible retaliation, Ms. Harris was put on a performance improvement plan (PIP) that required her to outperform some white peers who weren’t on PIPs themselves.
Finally, a month after Ms. Harris filed a third internal complaint, her former manicure buddy fired her.
Michelle Lamb is our latest Bad Boss of the Month.
Ms. Harris filed suit against FedEx in federal court, claiming race discrimination and retaliation. In October 2022, after a week-long trial, a jury in Houston found FedEx liable for retaliation and awarded her a whopping $366 million — an amount that may have been the largest-ever such award. FedEx appealed the outcome in February 2023.
By the time Ms. Harris was fired, she had been working for FedEx’s corporate sales organization for more than 12 years. According to testimony at trial, her early days at the company in Irving, Tex., in her second real job out of college, were life-changing.
Both of her parents were educators, Ms. Harris said, so she didn’t have much experience in the corporate world. Two mentors at FedEx took her in hand, teaching her how to remake her image so that she could advance more easily — dressing more sedately, toning down her “rather loud” persona.
“These two ladies saw potential in me, and had the courage to pull me to the side,” she told jurors. “They helped me identify that if I wanted to be able to grow with the company, I have to actually present myself as such — even the simplest things, [like] getting a watch, pearls … Just kind of restructuring.”
Before long Ms. Harris was thriving. At trial, a former co-worker called her “an immensely hard worker” who was so dedicated to FedEx — and even to its favored causes, such as Habitat for Humanity — that she “bled purple,” the shipping giant’s signature color.
Over her tenure, according to testimony, Ms. Harris was promoted six times and was named twice to the President’s Club, an honor reserved for stellar performers who then get to mingle with top execs on a luxury trip. Many FedEx salespeople go their entire careers without even one such award, jurors heard.
Along the way, Ms. Harris was selected for a FedEx leadership program and became a manager. In mid-2017, she was chosen to lead a $60 million district based in Houston, just as Ms. Lamb was tapped to head the parent region. Both women worked in the same building, on the same floor — and Ms. Harris believed she found had a new mentor and role model.
“I was excited to [be] able to learn from someone who was recently promoted into the director role, which I aspired to be,” she told jurors.
The early days were good; this was when they went for manicures together. Ms. Harris’ team initially exceeded their goals, along with several other teams, and helped Ms. Lamb to earn a coveted President’s Club honor.
In fiscal 2019, however, performance was rough across the entire company. Under pressure, the women’s relationship started to fray. Ms. Harris asked for weekly coaching meetings, hoping to tap into her boss’s experience, but was frustrated by a lack of concrete advice, she testified.
Then, in March 2019, came Ms. Lamb’s unexpected suggestion that Ms. Harris should think about dropping her management role, purportedly because of failings as a team coach — and also because her “passion for engaging with customers” might make her happier in a low-ranking role. All of a sudden, Ms. Harris testified, she reevaluated their past interactions and saw patterns she didn’t like, especially in comparison to Ms. Lamb’s treatment of white managers.
Ms. Harris testified, for instance, that Ms. Lamb had previously accused her of not participating in company incentive programs as other managers did — but cited data from before Ms. Harris was even in her position. Ms. Lamb also set unfair hurdles for Ms. Harris’ group by removing a big customer from the district without adjusting sales goals, she said.
Besides, Ms. Harris told jurors, her subordinates gave her high scores as a manager and coach in FedEx’s official surveys. “Statistics demonstrated that I was good at that job,” she testified.
“You’re supposed to be developed by your leader,” Ms. Harris said in court. “That was my goal [in] asking for additional one-on-ones. What I didn’t want is to be harassed in those meetings … There was never any leadership on Michelle Lamb’s part. It was always a beat-down. … All of those things where it’s clear that data demonstrates I am not the lowest, but … she’s belittling me, comparing me to my white peers.”
At trial, Ms. Lamb denied that she had ever treated Ms. Harris differently based on her race.
“It’s disgusting to be referred to as a racist,” she told jurors. “I am not a racist, nor do I associate with people who are.”
FedEx investigated Ms. Harris’ claims of discrimination and didn’t take any action against Ms. Lamb. Likewise at trial, the jury didn’t find enough evidence to prove discrimination.
What happened next, however, would ultimately lead to the nine-figure verdict.
Shortly after the discrimination investigation closed, and barely a year after Ms. Harris’ second President’s Award, Ms. Lamb hit her with a letter of counseling for “unacceptable performance” and a PIP, according to testimony.
Ms. Harris and her team weren’t meeting some goals, according to documents shown in court, but they also were performing better than some other teams under Ms. Lamb — and anyhow, high performers often lagged after an exceptional year, jurors heard.
Asked to explain at trial why Ms. Harris was singled out when several white peers had similar or worse team records, Ms. Lamb cited “leadership deficiencies.” Among the examples she discussed: When excluded by Ms. Lamb from a FedEx training program to “cut costs,” Ms. Harris had paid her own way to attend the session on a vacation day.
“Why aren’t you praising her for that?” asked Ms. Harris’ attorney. Ms. Lamb replied that she was “disappointed that [Ms. Harris] didn’t follow instructions.”
“You have to be capable of leading a team,” she testified, “and you have to be capable of being led. … Jennifer just lacked that ability.”
There were other disputes: Whether Ms. Lamb had reduced the revenue available to Ms. Harris by removing a member from her team; whether Ms. Lamb had shunted a big potential customer away from Ms. Harris. Amid this discord, the former sales star filed another internal complaint, alleging that Ms. Lamb was punishing her for the original discrimination claim.
Just days after the second FedEx probe ended — again to no effect — Ms. Lamb issued a letter of warning to Ms. Harris and put her on another PIP, according to testimony. The new plan required Ms. Harris to deliver a performance equal to the average of her peers, which meant outperforming some district managers who weren’t on PIPs themselves.
The conflict took a toll on Ms. Harris. According to testimony, the former athlete gained weight, developed anxiety, and had trouble sleeping due to “continuous dry heaving” that required medication and a procedure to address a developing hernia.
She filed a final internal complaint in December 2019 and was fired by Ms. Lamb the following month, ending an almost-13-year career at FedEx. Based on documents shown in court, her performance had exceeded several of her peers through much of the contested period.
“I never thought I would ever not work for FedEx,” Ms. Harris told the jury, describing her trauma upon leaving. Even today, she testified, she needs to look away whenever she sees a FedEx truck.
At trial, Ms. Harris’ pastor described her as “emotionally destroyed” by the firing. He saw her break down in tears several times, he said, and described holding her as she sobbed publicly at a birthday celebration in a restaurant.
“I am still worried about her mental state,” he testified.
A unanimous jury found that FedEx retaliated against Ms. Harris because of her claims of discrimination, and that the company didn’t treat her internal complaints in good faith. They awarded her more than $1 million for past and future emotional damage — and because they found FedEx’s behavior in the case to be “reprehensible,” they added a huge $365 million in punitive damages.
The number may have been inspired by Ms. Harris’ attorney, who suggested during his closing argument that punitive damages should send a message based on the overall value of FedEx Corporate Services: The jury awarded Ms. Harris about half the worth of the FedEx unit.
Ms. Lamb still works for FedEx, meanwhile, having been moved into a new position with “a larger [revenue] responsibility” than when she managed Ms. Harris, she testified.
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Harris v. FedEx Corporate 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.
Ms. Harris was represented by The Sanford Firm in Dallas.
This Bad Boss Punished a Career Prosecutor for Following Her Principles
Public prosecutors are hired to exercise unclouded legal judgment about whom to charge with a crime.
But Marlea Dell’Anno was fired for exercising such judgment, a jury found.
As a top prosecutor for the city of San Diego, Ms. Dell’Anno had enjoyed a large corner office, oversaw about 160 attorneys and staff, and reported directly to City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, a combative local politician who used his elected post to draw media attention and settle scores, according to a lawsuit.
In court filings, Ms. Dell’Anno said she ran afoul of Mr. Goldsmith by declining to prosecute flimsy cases that her boss was pushing for mostly political reasons — a battery charge against a troubled homeless man who spat at a cop, for instance.
An adviser to Mr. Goldsmith told Ms. Dell’Anno that she’d find more favor if she agreed to “get [her] hands dirty,” according to testimony. Instead, she refused more dubious requests from her boss. In response, Mr. Goldsmith stripped Ms. Dell’Anno of her staff and responsibilities and assigned her to a newly created position for “homeless related issues,” moving her office to a “filthy” room that had previously been used for storage, according to court filings.
Then, after Ms. Dell’Anno filed a complaint, Mr. Goldsmith quickly fired her — accusing her of dropping the ball on domestic violence reports. “There is absolutely no excuse” for such legal failures, Mr. Goldsmith declared to the media, which portrayed the firing as a valid punishment for Ms. Dell’Anno having “bungled” sensitive cases.
A jury ultimately found the firing to be illegal. In the meantime, however, a formerly rising star’s career lay in tatters.
Jan Goldsmith is our latest Bad Boss of the Month.
Ms. Dell’Anno sued the City of San Diego for retaliation, and earlier this year a California jury awarded her $3.9 million in damages. The judge later tacked on $1.7 million in attorney fees and costs. The city is appealing the verdict .
Being a prosecutor was Ms. Dell’Anno’s “lifelong dream,” according to court filings. After starting out as a public defender in Tulare County, in California’s Central Valley, she became a deputy district attorney for neighboring Fresno County, where she coordinated a program to manage sex offenders .
In 2009, Ms. Dell’Anno moved south to San Diego to become a deputy city attorney under Mr. Goldsmith. She was tapped to run the domestic violence unit, where she notched a 95% conviction rate. By mid-2012, she was heading the entire criminal division , according to court documents.
“My whole identity was being a prosecutor,” Ms. Dell’Anno testified. “I loved everything about being a prosecutor, and I loved my division.”
As the elected city attorney, meanwhile, Mr. Goldsmith was a veteran politician. A Republican, he had served as mayor of Poway, a small city north of San Diego, and then for three terms in the California state assembly. After an unsuccessful run for state treasurer, he served as a judge for almost a decade before being elected as San Diego’s top prosecutor of misdemeanors. (The San Diego County district attorney handles felonies, which are graver crimes.)
Court documents depict Ms. Dell’Anno’s early relationship with Mr. Goldsmith as respectful. In 2013, however, Ms. Dell’Anno attended a city council meeting and publicly answered questions about her division’s budget — too honestly for Mr. Goldsmith’s taste, according to her testimony.
In her complaint, Ms. Dell’Anno described the city attorney chewing her out in front of his entire management team and forbidding her from speaking with council members. The relationship never recovered.
The following year, an elderly homeless man was arrested while he was having a mental crisis. According to court documents, he spat on a police officer. One of Ms. Dell’Anno’s attorneys decided not to file battery charges, but the spat-upon officer appealed to Mr. Goldsmith, who was known as a vocal supporter of the police. Mr. Goldsmith, in turn, asked Ms. Dell’Anno to take a closer look .
Ms. Dell’Anno concluded that the incident — which became known as the “spit battery case” — couldn’t ethically be prosecuted. She wrote a memo to her boss explaining why, but Mr. Goldsmith disagreed and declared that he’d try the case himself, according to court documents, despite never having played such a role before.
Ms. Dell’Anno ended up winning the dispute when San Diego’s police chief told Mr. Goldsmith that her department had no intention of arresting the elderly man.
Hoping to mend fences, Ms. Dell’Anno sought advice around this time from Gerry Braun, a former journalist who was hired by Mr. Goldsmith to manage public relations — and who was known around the office as the “Jan whisperer,” according to filings.
Mr. Braun’s advice cut straight to the point: Mr. Goldsmith “wants you to get your hands dirty,” he advised, according to Ms. Dell’Anno’s complaint. “If you would just get your hands dirty, they would let you in the room.”
A litmus test came quickly. In court documents, Ms. Dell’Anno described a gleeful Mr. Goldsmith calling her into his office with a plan to “get” one of his political enemies — Cory Briggs, a local attorney who ran for the city attorney position.
Mr. Briggs’ supposed criminal offense: Authorizing other people to sign legal pleadings with his electronic signature. When Ms. Dell’Anno told Mr. Goldsmith that she didn’t see it as a prosecutable matter, “she could see the happiness draining from his face, replaced by anger,” according to filings.
In another showdown, Ms. Dell’Anno said in her complaint, Mr. Goldsmith asked her to use a civil subpoena to fish for evidence against a newspaper he wanted to charge criminally; again, she refused. (In filings, Mr. Goldsmith said he had no memory of this.)
Perhaps the last straw was a pair of performance evaluations. Two attorneys got bad ratings from their managers, who worked in turn for Ms. Dell’Anno. The employees sought help directly from Mr. Goldsmith, who asked Ms. Dell’Anno to yank the evaluations from their personnel files, according to testimony — a request she refused, citing state law and the fact that one of the attorneys was the subject of an ongoing internal investigation.
Shortly after, Mr. Goldsmith took action: He shifted Ms. Dell’Anno out of her plum job and into what she described in court documents as a “fict[it]ious position” that included the creation of what Mr. Goldsmith called a “Homeless Court.” She went from supervising 160 people to supervising no one, according to filings, and was assigned a small, dirty office that used to be a storage room .
Ms. Dell’Anno immediately blasted the move as retaliation, calling it “the most professionally and personally devasting event of my twenty-year career” in an email that also informed Mr. Goldsmith that she had hired counsel and filed an employment complaint.
Plus, she noted: “Your actions have had a direct and profound impact on my health and as a result, I have been placed on leave by my doctor.”
The following morning, according to documents filed in the case, Mr. Goldsmith emailed his head of human resources: “My intent is to fire her today.” Told that this would be seen as illegal retaliation, he instead said Ms. Dell’Anno should be fired after she returned from medical leave, according to filings.
And she was, about three weeks later, by which time Mr. Goldsmith had found a reason: Mishandling her portfolio of misdemeanor domestic violence complaints, a matter that hadn’t been raised before her leave.
In court documents, each side tells a different story about these cases. An attorney in Ms. Dell’Anno’s division evidently had allowed the statute of limitations to lapse on some misdemeanor complaints without action, and without informing the alleged victims.
According to Ms. Dell’Anno, she followed protocol, investigated the problem, and properly informed Mr. Goldsmith’s management team. But Mr. Goldsmith testified that the matter never reached his level — even though evidence showed that, during the investigation he convened during Ms. Dell’Anno’s absence, he had found two old memos that “apparently not much was done about.”
The reason for this communication failing is unknown, but in any case, court documents and news articles show that Mr. Goldsmith fired only two people: Ms. Dell’Anno and the lower-level attorney responsible for the cases. The junior attorney quickly found another prosecutor job — pursuing felony crimes, in fact — but Ms. Dell’Anno was shut out based on what she claimed in court documents was a smear campaign by “one or more high ranking officials and/or employees at the City Attorney’s office.”
She also was damaged by Mr. Goldsmith’s savvy media spin, including a story in the prominent San Diego Union-Tribune , according to testimony. While the newspaper quoted Mr. Goldsmith as “declin[ing] to identify the lawyers involved [in] a confidential personnel matter,” it also said four unnamed sources confirmed that Ms. Dell’Anno had been held responsible for “98 bungled cases .”
By her own account, Ms. Dell’Anno became unemployable as a prosecutor, and at one point considered turning to teaching to support her three children as a single mother. “It became pretty clear that I was being blackballed in the legal community,” she said in a deposition.
Ultimately, she opened her own law practice instead. In the interim she survived on loans and savings; her income for 2016, the year after her termination, was just $7,500, she testified. In 2021, an expert found that Ms. Dell’Anno still hadn’t “reached parity with her pre-termination earning capacity.”
In total, the jury in the case said, the former prosecutor’s economic loss due to Mr. Goldsmith’s actions had reached about $734,000 by the time of the trial — and would amount to a further $2.66 million in the future.
It awarded her a further $500,000 for physical and emotional damage.
In their verdict, the jurors confirmed that Ms. Dell’Anno wouldn’t have been fired if she hadn’t raised concerns about the spit battery case, the attempt to charge Mr. Briggs, and the request to remove the evaluation of an attorney under investigation — and that in each case Ms. Dell’Anno had “reasonable cause to believe that [Mr. Goldsmith’s requested actions] would result in … a violation of or noncompliance with” laws or rules.
Mr. Goldsmith didn’t run for reelection in 2016 due to term limits.
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Marlea Dell’Anno v. City of San Diego. 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.
Ms. Dell’Anno was represented by Denning Moores APC.
This Bad Boss Asked an Employee to Lie Under Oath — and Fired Him After He Refused
When Matthew Flanigan saw evidence that a senior executive at his company might be violating security protocols, he alerted a group that included Allan Metzger, the cofounder and then-CEO of Rheumatology Diagnostics Laboratory (RDL), a Los Angeles-based medical testing facility.
At first, Mr. Metzger agreed to restrict the executive’s access to RDL’s computer network, according to a lawsuit filed later by Mr. Flanigan, who was the lab’s IT director.
But after the alleged culprit made a fuss, Mr. Metzger instead reversed course and dragged Mr. Flanigan into a high-stakes corporate battle by asking him to declare under oath that he’d never seen any sign of a security breach, according to testimony.
Mr. Flanigan refused to lie for the CEO, a former doctor who had previously made headlines for his care of pop stars Janet and Michael Jackson — and who had surrendered his medical license in 2014 after being convicted of sexually exploiting a patient during an examination, according to court records.
Instead, the IT director signed a declaration for the other side in the fight — and quickly faced retaliation.
According to court documents, Mr. Metzger suspended Mr. Flanigan and started a probe of his behavior. Among the investigators: The husband of the executive who had earlier been flagged for security violations.
Just two weeks later Mr. Flanigan was fired, supposedly for deleting company files during his suspension, an action he believes was concocted to frame him, according to court documents.
Allan Metzger is our latest Bad Boss of the Month.
Mr. Flanigan sued RDL in California state court, claiming he’d actually been fired for, among other things, refusing to perjure himself. In late 2021, a Los Angeles jury found RDL liable and awarded him $1.68 million in damages. This May a judge awarded Mr. Flanigan nearly $900,000 more in interest, costs, and attorney fees.
RDL, the main assets of which were acquired by testing giant LabCorp in 2020, is appealing the verdict.
Mr. Flanigan had been at RDL for just over a year when the trouble started — but he already was thriving at the lab, having earned a promotion, a company car, and $40,000 in raises during his short tenure.
As IT director his job included overseeing computer security, so he was alarmed in early 2017 when software showed that RDL’s new compliance chief, Kristine Azarraga, had plugged in an unauthorized thumb drive and introduced foreign files into the lab’s network.
The files, Mr. Flanigan said in court documents, came from Ms. Azarraga’s previous employer, also a healthcare company, and included personal data from thousands of patients in apparent violation of HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, a law that protects the privacy of such information.
The IT director went to the top with his concerns, calling a meeting with Mr. Metzger and two other top executives, Samuel Morris and Richard Kazdan. Faced with Ms. Azarraga’s apparent misuse of a former employer’s data, the men initially agreed to limit her access to RDL’s data, Mr. Flanigan testified.
But then things went sideways.
First, Mr. Metzger reversed the decision about Ms. Azarraga after the compliance chief complained: “I’m the CEO and you’ll … do what I tell you to do,” Mr. Flanigan said Mr. Metzger yelled at him.
And second, the incident pulled the IT director into a fight that was stewing between the CEO and the other two executives to whom Mr. Flanigan had reported Ms. Azarraga’s breach, Mr. Morris and Mr. Kazdan.
Some background: RDL had been founded in 1976 by Mr. Metzger and the late Robert Morris, a noted rheumatologist and the father of Samuel Morris. For decades, the lab was run by the elder Morris, who acted as president, and his wife Barbara, who acted as CEO. Son Samuel later joined as a top manager.
Although Mr. Metzger was a co-owner, he mostly pursued flashier interests, according to court filings — including prescribing medication to stars such as Janet Jackson, for which he was censured in 2000, and accompanying Michael Jackson on tour as a physician.
(Mr. Metzger didn’t prescribe or administer the drugs that caused Mr. Jackson’s death in 2009; indeed, he testified against Conrad Murray, the physician who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the case.)
Mr. Kazdan was the lab’s longtime CFO.
By 2016 Robert and Barbara Morris were ailing; both would die before long. Having lost his California medical license in 2014, Mr. Metzger turned his focus to RDL — and, with the help of a minority shareholder, voted for himself as CEO to wrest control of the lab away from the Morrises, according to court filings.
Mr. Metzger treated RDL as a “personal piggy bank,” according to a declaration filed in court by the younger Mr. Morris: The new CEO paid himself an $800,000 salary; leased a Maserati as a company car; flew first-class and stayed in posh hotels with a girlfriend on “alleged … business outings”; and engaged in “sexual harassment” of RDL employees. The lab began to struggle financially, according to Mr. Morris, who testified that he had to lend RDL money just to make payroll.
Against this backdrop, Ms. Azarraga’s network access wasn’t just a security matter: It was fodder for a claim of mismanagement against Mr. Metzger.
Following the Azarraga incident, both Mr. Morris and Mr. Kazdan left RDL; Mr. Morris resigned and Mr. Kazdan was fired after warning the CEO about improper lab practices, according to court documents. In August, the duo filed a derivative action against Mr. Metzger and others, including Ms. Azarraga, claiming a breach of fiduciary duty and seeking at least $20 million for shareholders, along with changes to RDL’s “governance, policies and culture.”
Among the facts they cited: Mr. Flanigan’s warning about Ms. Azarraga — and Mr. Metzger’s subsequent restoration of her network privileges.
After being served with the lawsuit, the CEO summoned Mr. Flanigan into his office, according to testimony. A lawyer for RDL attended via phone and quizzed the IT director about the Azarraga incident; a few days later, Mr. Flanigan received a document in which he was asked to swear that he was unaware of any evidence that Ms. Azarraga had violated security protocols.
“Having reported Ms. Azarraga for doing precisely that only four months earlier,” Judge Terry Green noted in a later order, Mr. Flanigan “could not very well sign the declaration.”
Meanwhile, attorneys for Mr. Morris and Mr. Kazdan had also been in touch with the IT director. They too had drafted a declaration — and on the same day he refused to endorse Mr. Metzger’s document, Mr. Flanigan signed the competing version, which he found to be truthful.
The next day, after his declaration was filed in court, the IT director was put on investigative leave. The issue, according to court documents: In his declaration, Mr. Flanigan might have disclosed privileged information — and Mr. Metzger wanted to see whether he was leaking dirt to the other side. The IT director was forbidden to access RDL’s computer system.
Mr. Flanigan wasn’t at work when he got news of the suspension; the morning after siding against Mr. Metzger, he had called in sick with chest pains. His RDL office was quickly stripped of his personal effects.
“It was pretty obvious that they intended to fire me,” he testified.
Ironically, just weeks earlier Mr. Flanigan had been cleared of any collaboration with the recently departed Mr. Morris and Mr. Kazdan — via a secret investigation launched by Mr. Metzger himself. Concerned that his email had been compromised, the CEO had asked an outside security consultant to assess whether his IT director was “spying,” according to a copy of the report filed in the case.
The resulting exoneration was definitive: “I … would go so far as to stake my professional reputation … that the likelihood of Matt Flanigan committing any wrongdoing or unethical activity [is remote],” the investigator wrote in a report that didn’t surface until years into the lawsuit.
Nonetheless, RDL pressed ahead with another investigation. This time evidence showed that “the conclusion was foregone,” according to Judge Green.
First, according to court documents, came an informal probe by — of all people — Ms. Azarraga’s husband, Garabed Yegavian, himself an IT professional. Mr. Yegavian “might well” have been biased against Mr. Flanigan, according to Judge Green.
Either way, Mr. Yegavian promptly delivered logs that purported to show that Mr. Flanigan had deleted a bunch of files after being banned from the network. Then RDL provided the same logs to an outside investigator, who agreed with Mr. Yegavian’s conclusion — but didn’t address what Judge Green called “the very real possibility” that someone else had used Mr. Flanigan’s passwords, which he had provided to RDL, to create the firing offense. In fact, records showed that the IT director wasn’t at the RDL office when Mr. Yegavian’s logs supposedly showed him logging in from there.
Based on these investigations, which Judge Green wrote “can hardly be called rigorous,” Mr. Metzger fired Mr. Flanigan in September 2017. About a month later, RDL began paying Mr. Yegavian as a consultant, according to court documents.
The matter finally reached trial in state court in September 2021. After three weeks of proceedings, a Los Angeles jury found Mr. Metzger’s firing of the IT director to be both unlawful and “malicious, oppressive, and/or fraudulent,” awarding Mr. Flanigan $1.08 million in direct damages and a further $600,000 in punitive damages — to which Judge Green later added almost $900,000 in interest, fees, and costs, for a total of more than $2.5 million.
The dispute over RDL’s governance, meanwhile, settled in 2019. After selling most of the business to LabCorp, Mr. Metzger wound up the corporation in 2020, according to state filings. His medical license had been reinstated earlier that year, with a host of probationary conditions that included the use of a chaperone when treating female patients and successful completion of a program on “professional boundaries,” but the now-former CEO agreed to surrender his license again in 2021.
The most recent order by the Medical Board of California doesn’t state a reason, but cites a provision that covers either Mr. Metzger’s decision to stop practicing medicine or his inability “to satisfy the terms and conditions of probation.”
» Watch Mr. Metzger’s testimony in the trial of Conrad Murray, a physician convicted of the involuntary manslaughter of Michael Jackson
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Flanigan v. Rheumatology Diagnostics Laboratory, 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.
Mr. Flanigan was represented by the Law Offices of Edward Y. Lee.
This Bad Boss Triggered an Injured Employee’s PTSD — Then Took Him to Court.
Getting badly hurt by an inmate should have been the low point of Darrin Rushing’s career as a corrections officer.
But according to a lawsuit, it was just the start of his troubles.
Mr. Rushing’s leg had been shattered as he tried to break up a scuffle between prisoners at the Macomb Correctional Facility, a state prison outside Detroit. He was confined to a wheelchair for months.
When Mr. Rushing finally returned to full duty, he asked to have no further contact with Lester Gunn, the prisoner who broke his leg, but his request was denied. Before long he had an encounter with Mr. Gunn that awakened his post-traumatic stress disorder, according to testimony in the case.
Even so, Mr. Rushing’s boss, James Webster, kept assigning him to the same duty, jurors heard at trial — and when Mr. Rushing left work to avoid another bout of PTSD, Mr. Webster reported him for insubordination.
Tensions escalated between the men, according to testimony, as Mr. Webster harmed Mr. Rushing’s efforts to get a different job and gave him triggering tasks such as cleaning up blood after an assault.
Mr. Webster, a lieutenant, even dragged his subordinate into court, claiming that he feared Mr. Rushing would get physical. The supervisor sought a protective order that could have cost Mr. Rushing his job; a judge denied the request as improper.
James Webster is our latest Bad Boss of the Month.
Ultimately, Mr. Rushing filed a complaint against the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC), alleging several violations of Michigan’s Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act. This April, a state jury awarded Mr. Rushing more than $1.2 million in damages.
Mr. Rushing had grown up with a strong sense of duty: The youngest of six brothers, he began taking on extra tasks at age seven, including the collection of donated food, when his abusive, alcoholic father left the family, according to court documents.
After high school, Mr. Rushing served for six years in the Marines and held a number of service-oriented jobs. In 1999, he began working for the MDOC, earning a top honor at the training academy, he testified. He had a trouble-free corrections career until 2011, when he received his life-altering injury at Macomb.
According to the incident report, two inmates got into a fight. One prisoner was quickly restrained; Mr. Rushing was among the responders who tried to control the other, Lester Gunn, a large, heavy man who resisted violently.
“He fought, kicked, he dislocated my ankle, we fell to the floor-and when he fell on me, he bent my leg backward and I sustained a grade four spiral fracture” of the calf bone, Mr. Rushing testified. “[His] 230-pound body landed on me. He heard my leg snap in half. Everybody heard it.”
Mr. Rushing had to undergo surgery twice; a doctor advised him that any further injury could disable him permanently, he told jurors.
After the incident, Mr. Rushing took medical leave and, in 2012, swapped his wheelchair for a cane and returned to MDOC for a long transition period with lighter duties. Along the way, he finished up a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, being cleared by doctors to bear weight on his leg just six days before his graduation.
For several years, Mr. Rushing thrived doing administrative and counseling work. Then in 2015, while he was still limping, he was pushed back into full duty as a corrections officer at Macomb — and quickly learned that Mr. Gunn, the inmate who had broken his leg, was returning to the prison after a move elsewhere.
Mr. Rushing had first requested a no-contact order against Mr. Gunn from his hospital bed immediately after the incident, he testified, but the matter was moot back then. Now, it was more urgent.
Mr. Gunn had a violent history, according to court records. Multiple MDOC officers had no-contact orders against him for injuries that included bites, head-punching, and lacerations, with several requiring stitches and leading to prosecution, according to a “Special Problem Offender Notice” filed in the case.
Mr. Rushing’s concerns, however, were rebuffed .
Within the space of a month, Mr. Rushing faced Mr. Gunn three times in the chow hall at Macomb, triggering symptoms such as anxiety and an uncontrollably jittering foot. On the third occasion, he testified, the hulking inmate addressed him by name, shot a glance at the injured leg, and ominously asked how he was feeling.
This was enough to spark what Mr. Rushing’s doctor diagnosed as a PTSD episode, leading to several weeks of medical leave, another request for a no-contact order, and yet another denial — the fifth, according to Mr. Rushing’s complaint in the case .
When Mr. Rushing returned to Macomb, he was again assigned to the chow hall at the insistence of Mr. Webster, the lieutenant, according to testimony . On the first day, he quietly swapped duties with a colleague, but on the second day, he was ordered to comply. He pleaded with a sergeant for different duty, to no avail.
“I’ll do anything you want … even go dig through a prisoner’s poop,” he testified he said, before escalating the matter to the prison’s control center, where Mr. Webster was.
“I explained everything briefly … how I could not come face-to-face with Prisoner Gunn,” he said in a deposition. “I was not ready. And [Mr. Webster] said, You’re going to the chow hall.”
Feeling the onset of a panic attack, Mr. Rushing instead decided to go home sick. He was trembling as he removed his equipment, he testified, and kept dropping things. Under medical care for his PTSD, he wouldn’t return to the prison for several months.
The day he left, according to testimony, Mr. Webster requested that Mr. Rushing be investigated for insubordination.
Ironically, Mr. Gunn wasn’t even in the chow hall that day. No one told Mr. Rushing at the time, but the inmate he feared had been transferred to another facility for unrelated reasons .
After Mr. Rushing was cleared by his doctor, he returned to Macomb and faced the result of the insubordination probe that had been requested by Mr. Webster: A five-day unpaid suspension. The lieutenant was waiting outside the prison’s HR office after Mr. Rushing was informed and promptly requested another investigation based on his subordinate’s reaction.
In testimony, both men agreed that Mr. Rushing was angry and snapped at Mr. Webster outside the HR office. But Mr. Webster also claimed that Mr. Rushing spoke to another person and hinted at violence against the lieutenant — something Mr. Rushing denied.
Mr. Webster took the extraordinary step of asking a Michigan state judge for a protective order that would bar his subordinate from the workplace. Mr. Rushing was humiliated by being served with the papers in the prison lobby, in front of coworkers, he testified.
The judge quickly denied Mr. Webster’s request, saying at a hearing that the alleged threat, even if it had happened, was “vague” and “heat of the moment.” With no claim of further threats, MDOC’s internal process should be allowed to play out, she said; the lieutenant’s pleading “doesn’t fly.”
“Basically, you’re coming to this court for [Mr. Rushing] to lose his job,” the judge said. “I really don’t think that is the proper place.”
MDOC’s internal investigation led to a second suspension for Mr. Rushing. In an affidavit, a former deputy warden called both suspensions “inappropriate and excessive.”
“Officer Rushing should have been shown some compassion considering he was assaulted by a prisoner he would encounter,” he wrote.
Via a grievance process, Mr. Rushing ultimately retrieved some of the lost pay — but he continued to be harmed by the discipline process and by Mr. Webster’s failed request for a protective order.
In 2016, for instance, Mr. Rushing applied for a position with the Saint Clair County Sheriff’s Department. He reached the final round of interviews — but then, during a reference check, his prospective employer reached Mr. Webster.
“I’m probably not the person you want to talk to,” said Mr. Webster, according to an MDOC email filed in court. “I recently put a [personal protective order] out on Officer Rushing.”
Mr. Rushing didn’t get the job.
His disciplinary record stopped him from being promoted internally, according to testimony, despite Mr. Rushing’s long experience and strong education, plus military service that was considered as a positive factor by MDOC.
In 2017, for example, an assistant deputy warden told him he was the most qualified candidate to become a program coordinator, Mr. Rushing testified — but was “instantly deflated” to learn of the suspensions.
A candidate with less relevant experience was hired instead, according to court records.
Meanwhile, Mr. Webster continued to be his supervisor, assigning him tasks that Mr. Rushing viewed as punitive.
In one instance, a friend of Mr. Rushing was attacked by an inmate. According to Mr. Rushing’s deposition, blood was splattered as high as four feet on several walls; Mr. Webster ordered Mr. Rushing to clean it up, even though other officers were available.
According to a psychiatric evaluation in court records, the incident aggravated Mr. Rushing’s PTSD, increasing his nightmares, flashbacks, and panic attacks. At trial, both Mr. Rushing and his wife told jurors that his marriage suffered from the ongoing stress of working with Mr. Webster; he withdrew from his family and stopped having dinner with them.
Mr. Rushing filed an internal complaint against Mr. Webster but, according to court documents, it went nowhere. In 2018, he filed his lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections.
In April 2022, after a three-week trial, a jury found MDOC liable to Mr. Rushing for failing to accommodate his disability; for discriminating against him; and for retaliation. Jury members awarded the officer, who remains employed by MDOC, more than $400,000 in past and future economic damages — and almost $868,000 for physical and emotional harm.
According to his attorney, Mr. Rushing was finally promoted shortly before the trial began.
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Rushing v. Michigan Department of Corrections. 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.
Mr. Rushing was represented by Marko Law.
This Bad Boss Pushed His Tourette-Suffering Employee Toward a Health Crisis.
Working almost 100 hours in a week is a lot. For Brian Bell, it proved overwhelming.
Mr. Bell’s disabilities — from depression to Tourette Syndrome — hadn’t previously affected his strong performance as a store manager at O’Reilly Auto Parts in Belfast, Maine, according to a lawsuit he later filed. His Tourette’s tics, which manifested as a body jerk and a squeaking sound, were limited to just ten a day via medication.
But when an O’Reilly district manager, Chris Watters, denied his requests for extra help to cover a staff shortage, Mr. Bell was suddenly forced to double his own work hours, he testified. Even after adjusting his meds, his symptoms began to escalate under the stress and exhaustion.
Mr. Bell was near a breaking point, he told a jury, but Mr. Watters — who was partly responsible for the labor emergency, according to testimony — refused his pleas to offer overtime to other store workers or to borrow staff from nearby O’Reilly locations.
By the start of his seventh 15-hour day, Mr. Bell’s tics became almost constant. Other symptoms were cropping up, too, including severe headaches and pain in a previously injured knee. He ducked into the parking lot for a quick break, which didn’t violate any rules — only for Mr. Watters, who had been tipped off by a neighboring store manager, to call Mr. Bell’s cellphone and order him back to work immediately, according to testimony.
Ultimately, a medical provider stepped in and helped the beleaguered Mr. Bell to take some leave and request a disability accommodation that would shield him from excessive schedules in the future. Mr. Watters said he couldn’t make such a guarantee to an O’Reilly store manager, however, a jury heard at trial.
The district manager’s counteroffer: A demotion to a different location that would cut Mr. Bell’s pay in half while tripling his commute.
Chris Watters is our latest Bad Boss of the Month.
Mr. Bell filed a lawsuit against O’Reilly in 2016 under the Maine Human Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, resulting in two trials in federal court — the second a redo after the first was compromised by faulty jury instructions. In October 2021, the second jury awarded Mr. Bell more than $850,000 in damages, an amount that was affirmed last month by the trial judge.
O’Reilly will contest the outcome, according to court filings.
Mr. Bell was diagnosed with Tourette’s at 16. As with most sufferers, the disorder wasn’t very disruptive — nothing like some lurid media portrayals. His body would occasionally twitch and a squeal-like sound would escape, he told jurors, which might unnerve onlookers who didn’t expect it. With medication, he kept it under good control.
He had previously been diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety, which often accompany Tourette’s, and developed major depressive disorder a few years later. Nonetheless, jurors heard, he thrived. He was an honor student throughout college , even while enduring multiple surgeries for a lacrosse-injured knee. After graduating with a degree in business administration and marketing, he started working in the auto industry.
By 2014, Mr. Bell had earned several Automotive Service Excellence certifications and four years of managerial experience. He joined O’Reilly as its Belfast store manager, bringing the location into profitability for the first time in its history — and logging performance improvements every month, according to testimony. His disabilities were widely known at work, he said, including the Tourette’s, but didn’t require any accommodation.
Meanwhile, as district manager, Mr. Watters oversaw several stores in the area. He visited the Belfast store almost every week and spoke with Mr. Bell almost daily; at trial, he admitted having noticed Mr. Bell’s tics.
They clashed early on. Apparently due to a miscommunication, Mr. Watters wrote up Mr. Bell for failing to work full shifts. According to court documents, Mr. Watters called the behavior — which Mr. Bell denied — “a personal insult.”
Certainly the men had different management styles. According to documents, Mr. Bell wanted to go easy on several employees who faced personal challenges, while Mr. Watters pushed to fire them. In one instance, Mr. Bell said in a court document that wasn’t seen by jurors, Mr. Watters seemed to suggest framing an underperformer for theft.
“I do not care if you put a stereo in his personal vehicle and then find it while walking him out to his car,” Mr. Bell said he was told by Mr. Watters.
At trial, Mr. Bell skipped such details but painted Mr. Watters as a caustic authoritarian. “I think that he believed that the ends justified the means,” he testified. “[A]t the end of the day, you had two ways of doing things, and that was his way or out.”
In May 2015, one of Mr. Watters’ firings coincided with an unrelated resignation to create a sudden staff shortage in the Belfast store, according to testimony. Some of the remaining employees were able to work overtime, Mr. Bell told jurors, but Mr. Watters refused to authorize the expenditure — or to borrow workers from a nearby store.
While he scrambled to find new employees, Mr. Bell had to fill the gap himself. He began working 15 hours a day, from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., he testified, and his health took a downward turn.
Mr. Bell’s tics became more frequent and more painful, he told the jury. Standing in the store for long hours also worsened the lingering injury to his knee, he said, and he started to experience headaches and dizziness.
By June 4, he was struggling. He had told Mr. Watters he was burning out, he testified — and Mr. Watters had witnessed his troubles while on a store visit — but no help was forthcoming. Having worked about 90 hours in the past week, he was exhausted and trembling.
According to court documents, Mr. Bell opened the store that day, waited for his staff to arrive, and then went out to his truck to gather himself. His tics were coming with barely a pause. Like other O’Reilly employees, Mr. Bell was entitled to 90 minutes of break time each day; at trial, Mr. Watters agreed that store managers can take this time at their discretion.
Nonetheless, Mr. Watters called Mr. Bell’s cellphone after just 15 minutes.
According to court documents, the district manager had been tipped off by a non-O’Reilly person who worked nearby; Mr. Watters said it was “outrageous” for Mr. Bell to be taking a break and told him to “get [his] ass back in the store now.”
Mr. Bell felt “defeated,” he told jurors, and complied.
A little later, in desperation, he went over Mr. Watters’ head and got permission to leave the store and seek immediate medical help, according to court documents.
Mr. Bell’s healthcare provider, a psychiatric nurse practitioner named Judy Weitzel, insisted that he take a few days off: Coupled with the overwork, his higher medication doses had nearly sent him to the hospital, she said.
Ms. Weitzel also helped Mr. Bell to fill out an O’Reilly form that requested a new accommodation for his disabilities — specifically, that his scheduled hours be limited to 45 hours a week, roughly the average amount he had worked before the staffing emergency. She wrote a cover note offering to answer any questions.
At trial, Mr. Watters admitted initial doubts about Mr. Bell’s disability claims. Although he had noticed the tics, he testified, he didn’t know about any mental health issues. According to court documents, his first response was, “Who will be closing your store?”
Furthermore, O’Reilly lawyers told the court, Mr. Watters misinterpreted Mr. Bell’s accommodation request: He believed that 45 hours was a hard weekly maximum — when in fact, both Ms. Weitzel and Mr. Bell allowed some flexibility for unexpected events.
Mr. Watters never contacted Ms. Weitzel, according to court documents. Instead, according to court documents, he concluded that Mr. Bell couldn’t be accommodated while remaining as an O’Reilly store manager. He offered him a lower position as Shift Lead in a different town, which would increase Mr. Bell’s daily commute while slicing his yearly earnings of $42,000 by half.
Mr. Bell realized the misunderstanding and tried to explain it to Mr. Watters but got nowhere, he testified. He even contacted O’Reilly’s HR department and offered to be demoted to assistant manager in the Belfast store, if that would solve matters, but got no official reply.
Meanwhile, at Mr. Watters’ request, he was staying away from work while negotiations ground on.
In July, Mr. Watters offered him a position as Parts Specialist in Belfast at $10 per hour, according to court documents — again, roughly half Mr. Bell’s existing salary. Mr. Bell responded by email, once more clarifying his accommodation request to Mr. Watters and to O’Reilly HR — and asking why he hadn’t been contacted about an assistant manager job that he heard had recently opened up in Belfast.
On August 5, Mr. Watters made him a take-it-or-leave-it offer: The Belfast assistant manager position for $10 per hour. Mr. Bell was troubled: Comparable non-disabled assistant managers got between $11 and $13, he said in court filings. Indeed, he testified, Mr. Watters had recently approved an offer of $13.50 per hour to hire someone with less managerial experience and fewer industry certifications than Mr. Bell.
Mr. Watters had given Mr. Bell just two days to respond or face termination, according to court documents. Mr. Bell asked for a better pay rate but got no immediate reply. His mental health, already precarious, continued to plummet; at trial, an expert witness said he became suicidal and was often bedridden.
His wife Natalie described Mr. Bell to jurors as disconnected, confused, and hurt during this period. In the car together one day, she testified, Mr. Bell asked her if she’d ever thought about just driving into a ditch. At his request, she removed all firearms and ammunition from the house.
“I texted him every hour on the hour just checking in, making sure he was okay and still there,” she testified.
About two months after his request to be paid more than $10 an hour as an assistant manager, Mr. Bell came to realize that he’d been fired when he received a letter from O’Reilly explaining his right to pay for a continuation of health benefits.
Mr. Bell sued in 2016. His first trial ended in defeat, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit found errors and ordered a do-over. Late last year, the second trial ended in his favor: A federal jury awarded him $42,000 in back pay, $75,000 in compensatory damages, and $750,000 in punitive damages.
Mr. Watters stepped down as regional manager in 2016 and ultimately left O’Reilly in June 2018, shortly before the first trial, according to his LinkedIn profile.
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Bell v. O’Reilly Auto Enterprises, LLC, d/b/a O’Reilly Auto Parts. 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.
Mr. Bell was represented by Maine Employment Rights Group.
On Paper, This Pastor Was an Anti-Harassment Coordinator. The Reality Was a Bit Different.
Titles meant a lot to Anita Bralock: She had worked hard for hers.
After serving as a registered nurse since 1982, she earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in nursing so she could teach other medical professionals, eventually rising to department chair at a university just outside Los Angeles. When she was recruited by the Christian-oriented American University of Health Sciences in nearby Signal Hill, Calif., Ms. Bralock believed it was another step upward in her educational career.
Then she got to know Gregory Johnson, the founder of AUHS — a person for whom, according to testimony in a lawsuit filed by Ms. Bralock, titles were less … rigorous.
Mr. Johnson and his wife Kim Dang, a co-founder of AUHS, both went by “doctor,” for example, yet each holds only an honorary degree, the jury heard. Ms. Dang’s degree came from a shadowy school in Liberia; his from an institution that wasn’t stated in court. Neither had any medical training, Mr. Johnson testified.
As AUHS founder, the volatile Mr. Johnson frequently waved aside the school’s titles and hierarchy, Ms. Bralock testified, inserting himself into decisions he was unqualified to make, including student admissions and faculty selection. An independent accreditation group found his operating role at AUHS to be inappropriate, the jury heard.
A pastor whose “Church of Love” focuses on homeless people, Mr. Johnson also served as the federal Title IX coordinator for AUHS — making him responsible for ensuring a non-discriminatory educational environment. But Mr. Johnson himself handed out suggestive materials, inappropriately touched faculty members, exploded in anger, and was the subject of multiple sexual harassment complaints from students, according to court documents.
“I don’t even know what Title IX means,” Mr. Johnson acknowledged in a deposition video that was replayed in court.
Gregory Johnson is our new Bad Boss of the Month.
Ms. Bralock and another administrator began looking into some of the harassment allegations, only to be fired for purportedly unrelated reasons. They filed a lawsuit against Mr. Johnson and AUHS for retaliation, a hostile work environment, and other violations. This past September, a state jury awarded each of them more than $1 million in damages — and declared Mr. Johnson to be “unfit or incompetent” for the operational roles he had held at AUHS. The outcome is being appealed.
By the time of the trial in 2021, Ms. Bralock had devoted nearly four decades of her life to nursing. After starting as an RN, Ms. Bralock trained to become a certified nurse midwife. She then spent years cultivating her academic credentials and, in 1991, began educating others as skilled nurses. According to her testimony, she became a professor and then a department chair at Azusa Pacific University, a Christian-based college. About three years into her tenure, Mr. Johnson came knocking.
At that time, the nursing program at AUHS was still in its infancy. Mr. Johnson and Ms. Dang, a former Vietnamese refugee, had founded AUHS as a vocational school in 1993, when Ms. Dang was just 24. After it got traction, they began developing more advanced programs in pharmacy, clinical research, and — as of 2007 — nursing.
Hired as associate dean for the AUHS nursing school in 2010, Ms. Bralock quickly clashed with the founders. Despite not having graduated from college himself , Mr. Johnson insisted on controlling what he called “his” curriculum, she testified, ignoring the suggestions of faculty and administrators.
When she was promoted to dean the following year, Ms. Bralock gained oversight of the student application process — only to be overruled by Ms. Dang, who forced her to admit candidates who would go on to fail board exams, she told jurors.
Meanwhile Mr. Johnson meddled in hiring, bringing aboard an unqualified faculty member without informing either Ms. Bralock or AUHS’ then-president. He started meeting the young woman behind closed doors, encouraging her to wear revealing outfits and stiletto heels instead of scrubs, Ms. Bralock said in court — adding that the woman, who later accused Mr. Johnson of harassment, told her she feared losing her job if she didn’t comply.
It wasn’t the only example of Mr. Johnson giving unwanted attention to women at AUHS, according to court documents: Another employee accused Mr. Johnson of unwelcome hugging, hair touching, and shoulder massages; at an internal meeting to discuss his behavior, he reached across his wife, Ms. Dang, to stroke the employee’s hair again.
Suggestive talk was common during mandatory, ostensibly religious sessions hosted by Mr. Johnson, jurors heard. One series of meditations was dubbed “Morning Dew,” Ms. Bralock testified, with Mr. Johnson handing out flyers that included, in one case, a scantily clad woman waiting by a window to offer the reader “the favor that God has set before thee.”
At Morning Dew, Mr. Johnson asked employees to repeat and interpret phrases he had written such as “let me move inside you … rise inside you” as he hovered behind each speaker in turn — a practice that felt both uncomfortable and un-Christian , Ms. Bralock testified.
Sexual imagery played a role in AUHS recruitment, too: Mr. Johnson testified that he sought out future students at nearby comic-book conferences, where he took pictures with attendees in risqué costumes, commented on women’s appearances, and handed out AUHS flyers that showed off a self-styled vigilante called “The Pastor” and a bosomy female superhero in a crop top and crotch-hugging miniskirt.
The same sexualized female character, sporting high-heeled boots and crosses on her shoulders, appeared on a 10-foot banner in the school’s lobby, Ms. Bralock testified.
Tensions rose in 2015, as AUHS was seeking an additional accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. After a three-day visit, WASC officials criticized the school’s “idiosyncratic leadership structure,” finding that Mr. Johnson lacked the “qualifications and experience” to be chief operating officer — his title at the time — and faced multiple conflicts of interest, especially if he were to be accused of wrongdoing, according to a report presented at trial.
Neither Mr. Johnson nor Ms. Dang could properly call themselves “doctor,” the report added — although Ms. Dang, who remains an owner and trustee of AUHS, continues to use the title on the school’s Web site at this writing.
WASC refused to accredit the school, jurors heard, until Mr. Johnson halted any direct involvement in its operations. He eventually did step back, along with Ms. Dang, but not until 2016, after Ms. Bralock had already been fired, according to testimony.
In the fraught months after the WASC visit, Mr. Johnson’s behavior led to a flurry of discrimination and harassment accusations from students and staff, according to court documents. Among these claims: Mr. Johnson showed preferential treatment to attractive women; pressed up against a woman when hugging her; made lewd comments around students such as “she should have come naked”; and stared down a student’s top.
A sexual harassment training session was organized for AUHS staff, according to testimony, but Mr. Johnson was so disruptive that he was asked to leave by moderators. At trial, Mr. Johnson denied he was a harasser. “There must be an agenda” behind the accusations, he said in court. “Sometimes people have a problem with [other] people being successful.”
Ms. Bralock and another administrator, Brandon Fryman, spoke with one of the complainants but were quickly removed from the case by Mr. Johnson, they testified. Not long afterward, the AUHS president resigned after multiple run-ins with Mr. Johnson. Ms. Bralock and Mr. Fryman were suspended the same day, and all three officials were escorted off campus.
A few months later, Ms. Bralock and Mr. Fryman were back to AUHS and officially fired. Ms. Bralock’s meeting lasted only 10 minutes, she told the jury. The purported reasons were murky: At trial, Mr. Johnson said he believed Ms. Bralock and Mr. Fryman were scheming with a former employee to open a competing school but offered no evidence of such a plot. In testimony, Ms. Bralock flatly denied the claim; since being fired, she has taught as an adjunct professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and no rival school has emerged.
Mr. Johnson was never barred from AUHS events, nor from interacting with students, he testified; the harassment investigations ended without any significant discipline . He remains a school trustee along with Ms. Dang, and both continue to be featured in AUHS videos and updates.
Ms. Bralock’s upward trajectory in medical education, meanwhile, faltered after she was fired, she testified: She’d like someday to become a university president but knows that her UCLA teaching gig — while fulfilling — is a step down from being dean of a nursing school.
“I had to eat,” she told the jury.
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Bralock v. American University of Health Sciences, 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.
Ms. Bralock was represented by Law Office of Twila S. White.
This Bad Boss Had the Facts He Needed to Stop Sexual Harassment, Yet Failed to Act
At first, Tracy White saw LaVerne Armstrong as an ally.
Facing sexual comments from her supervisor at the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) — and a lewd office culture that she saw as discriminatory — Ms. White asked to meet with Mr. Armstrong, her higher-level boss, according to testimony in a lawsuit she filed.
“He listened,” the social work administrator said in a deposition. “He was empathetic. … I felt supported.”
Nothing changed, however. In her deposition, Ms. White said she went back to Mr. Armstrong several months later, updating her complaints and reminding him that her supervisor had told her, in front of a co-worker, that he dreamed of her in dominatrix gear.
Mr. Armstrong’s response, according to her testimony?
“You need to stop telling me that … It makes me uncomfortable.”
Mr. Armstrong started an investigation that didn’t focus on discrimination or harassment and found no violations of DHS policy by Ms. White’s supervisor, Michael McInroy. The conclusion, according to testimony: Ms. White needed to upgrade her relationship with Mr. McInroy or look for a job elsewhere in the organization.
Mr. Armstrong also told Ms. White to work with a coach who asked her to consider ways “to make [Mr. McInroy] better” — and who then convened a torturous joint coaching session in which Mr. McInroy implied that his behavior was her fault.
“It felt like … being in marital therapy with my abuser,” Ms. White testified.
LaVerne (Vern) Armstrong is our latest Bad Boss of the Month.
Ultimately, Ms. White complained to someone who acted: Kim Reynolds, the governor of Iowa. Mr. McInroy was fired shortly afterward. Ms. White sued Iowa in state court and, after an 11-day trial this year, won a jury award of $790,000 for emotional distress. Late last month, the trial judge denied two motions to change the outcome.
Ms. White had joined DHS as a social worker in 2000, rising through the ranks of the Des Moines region along with Mr. McInroy, who eventually became her manager. The pair initially got along: Drawn to Ms. White’s office by her stash of chocolate, Mr. McInroy would hang out and chat with the door closed.
“I finally had to ask him to quit coming in so much because people were starting to wonder why he was in my office so much,” Ms. White testified.
But Mr. McInroy was known for playing favorites in the office, according to testimony — and by 2012, Ms. White had fallen into the “out crowd.”
The behavior of some of the “in crowd” troubled Ms. White and other employees: One member of Mr. McInroy’s leadership team, for example, joked about spanking a female employee, whom he allowed to call him “Daddy,” and spoke to co-workers about bodily fluids being “the nectar of the gods,” according to testimony.
Women were frequently assessed in sexual terms. When discussing one employee’s short dress, for instance, Mr. McInroy joked about praying she’d drop her pencil, Ms. White testified. Consequences for bad behavior were rare, she said.
Two incidents prompted Ms. White to seek help from Mr. Armstrong, a level up, in early 2017.
First, a fired employee accused Mr. McInroy in a grievance of discriminating against her as a woman and as a lesbian. While Ms. White agreed with the firing, she testified that she felt the portrayal of Mr. McInroy had merit: Mr. McInroy said he avoided meeting with the employee, for example, and expressed disgust at the idea of the employee having sex with her wife.
Then there was the dominatrix comment.
In the wake of the employee’s firing — which arose from the death of a child under the eye of DHS — the Des Moines office was on edge. A co-worker said she’d had a bad dream that featured Ms. White. According to testimony, Mr. McInroy jumped in: “Oh, was she wearing black leather and whipping you in your nightmare, too?”
The co-worker confirmed the awkward interjection and said she was “taken aback” by Mr. McInroy’s innuendo, an investigator later testified.
Ms. White reviewed her concerns in an initial meeting with Mr. Armstrong, the division administrator for DHS; the session lasted about three hours, she said in a filing. Nevertheless, Mr. Armstrong testified, he never concluded that Ms. White was “making a complaint or an allegation. It was a conversation of … how to make things go better.”
His only action in response: “I talked with Mike to get his perception…[we] talked about how to maybe improve their relationship [and] move forward collaboratively together.”
If anything, however, the opposite happened.
Mr. McInroy became openly hostile toward Ms. White, according to testimony — a change that she saw as retaliation for going up his chain of command. “I had a couple [of meetings] with Mike where he derided and berated me,” she said in a deposition. “I asked to leave the room. I cried.”
When she told Mr. McInroy that she was looking for a way to escape his management, she testified, he seemed “gleeful.”
Stung, Ms. White went back to Mr. Armstrong and then followed up with an e-mail that put her concerns in writing, adding more examples of discrimination. Mr. Armstrong triggered an investigation that ended up being handled internally by DHS rather than by Iowa’s Department of Administrative Services (DAS), which normally looks into harassment allegations.
Court records don’t fully explain why DAS didn’t step in, but the then-director of DHS said in a deposition that both Mr. Armstrong and another top executive, Jean Slaybaugh, had painted Ms. White to higher-ups as “a complainer.”
“That’s the way they referred to her,” testified Jerry Foxhoven, the former director. “To me, they seemed like they were in Mike’s court, you know, particularly Vern … She complains all the time, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”
The internal investigation found no violations on the part of Mr. McInroy, according to Mr. Armstrong. “It was a difference of leadership style,” he testified.
His resulting plan: “To clarify that Mike was remaining in his role, that people needed to get along, that they needed to stop … the discord.” He had no worries about Mr. McInroy’s continued supervision of Ms. White, he said — and he suggested hiring a “leadership development specialist,” or coach, to help defuse tensions.
Mr. Armstrong also explored the possibility that Ms. White could take a demotion or move outside of her area in DHS, child welfare. But, he testified, “she’d have to apply and interview. We weren’t going to just be able to move her.” That discussion went nowhere.
The coaching didn’t go anywhere, either.
Besides asking Ms. White to consider changing her own behavior, the coach organized a joint session with her and Mr. McInroy. During that meeting, Mr. McInroy acknowledged in testimony, he argued that Ms. White had faced his “Angry Mike” persona because of her failings — communication lapses and the like.
“She perceived me as Angry Mike,” Mr. McInroy said. “I would say that I was Annoyed Mike.”
Ms. White reported the dysfunctional outcome to Mr. Armstrong, who quickly gave up on coaching, according to court documents.
Meanwhile, the environment in the Des Moines office didn’t improve. Ms. White testified that she heard, for example, that an I.T. technician had sent an e-mail to a departing female employee saying that he’d miss his “eye candy.”
She reported the harassment to a responsible manager, but no action was taken until she pressed the manager several days later — and then, at the conclusion of a meeting on the matter, the same manager told an anecdote that ended with her singing part of Get Low, an explicit song by crunk star Lil Jon.
Mr. McInroy attended the meeting, Ms. White testified, and didn’t intervene.
Ms. White brought her continuing concerns to Mr. Armstrong, who opened a follow-up internal investigation that resulted in “essentially the same” finding of no violations — except that this time, Mr. Armstrong testified, he opted to “coach and counsel” Mr. McInroy on three incidents, including the dominatrix comment.
Counseling at DHS is a verbal process. Mr. McInroy testified that Mr. Armstrong gave him no specific guidance on what he called the “whips and chains” matter: “He just told me to be careful with my comments.”
In a memo at the end of 2018, Mr. Armstrong informed Ms. White that “appropriate action” now had been taken against Mr. McInroy, who remained in place. In a subsequent meeting, she testified, Mr. Armstrong told her she “needed to get on board.”
A couple of weeks later, she e-mailed Gov. Reynolds in frustration. “I felt I had no other recourse,” Ms. White said in a deposition.
Meanwhile, a different employee had triggered an investigation of another member of the “in crowd” — a female manager whom Ms. White had previously reported to Mr. Armstrong, and who now was accused of sexual harassment. Despite discussing penis size and breast size and giving sex toys to staff members as birthday gifts, an investigator testified, this manager had seemed “untouchable” because of her alignment with Mr. McInroy. Now there was strong evidence, however: A photo of the manager groping the complainant’s breast.
The combination of a phone call from the governor’s office and the new harassment complaint finally spurred DHS into action: This was the point, Mr. Armstrong testified, when he finally realized his office might have a problem.
It was also the point when Mr. Foxhoven, the former DHS director, got more involved. He ordered the firing of Mr. McInroy and told Mr. Armstrong to start looking for a job himself, he said in a deposition.
“Clearly, it was a mess,” he said he told Mr. Armstrong, “and you either didn’t know or didn’t care.”
Mr. Foxhoven warmed Mr. Armstrong that he would be fired on July 1, 2019, if he was still there. He also removed some responsibilities from Jean Slaybaugh, the other executive who had sided with Mr. McInroy over Ms. White, he testified.
But then, in an unexpected twist, Mr. Foxhoven himself was fired in June 2019 — for questioning Gov. Reynolds’ office on an ethical matter, he said in his deposition. Mr. Armstrong, who had never looked for another job anyway, was off the hook.
At trial earlier this year, jurors heard further testimony about the sexually charged Des Moines work environment, which featured photos of action figures in crude poses and a sign that designated one cubicle area as “Sniffer’s Row,” a lurid reference to certain seats at a strip club.
According to court documents, the fired Mr. McInroy agreed at trial that he had talked at work about picturing lesbians having sex — but only, he told jurors, to divert discussion from something inappropriate.
Ms. White cried through much of the trial, according to a filing. Her therapist testified that her distress, which had triggered several mood disorders and two outbreaks of shingles, would continue well into the future — an opinion that the judge cited in finding that the jury’s $790,000 award wasn’t excessive.
Ms. White still works at DHS, according to her attorney. So does Mr. Armstrong, who now serves as the head of DHS field operations, according to a recent org chart.
Ms. Slaybaugh, who with Mr. Armstrong had tagged Ms. White as a “complainer,” according to testimony, has risen to become the agency’s chief operating officer.
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in White v. State of Iowa. 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.
Ms. White was represented by Fiedler Law Firm, P.L.C.
Irked by a Cop’s Dyslexia, This Bad Boss Turned a Minor Traffic Stop into a Firing Offense
Dyslexia and ADHD didn’t stop Timothy Patrick “Pat” Green from working as a police officer for the City of South Pasadena. It was his dream job — and he did it happily for about 25 years.
Working first as a reserve officer and then full-time, Mr. Green became a well-loved figure in the community; fellow officers dubbed him “Father Pat” for his outreach to homeless and at-risk people.
One captain didn’t share the warm feelings, however. According to testimony in a lawsuit filed by Mr. Green, Richard Kowaltschuk was infuriated by his subordinate’s disabilities, to the point of expressing “disgust” at written reports that contained words garbled by the officer’s dyslexia.
The captain even rejected reports that sympathetic co-workers had helped Mr. Green to write, one colleague said at trial. “It was just never good enough,” the officer told jurors, noting that he had warned Mr. Green that Mr. Kowaltschuk was “coming after you.”
The blowup came after Mr. Green pulled over a driver early one morning. The event itself was relatively minor, but Mr. Kowaltschuk latched onto inconsistencies in the report, accusing his subordinate of lying — and twice re-staged the event to bolster his theory, according to court documents.
“This is our opportunity to get Pat Green,” the captain told an investigating officer, according to testimony. Although the investigator ended up recommending no action, Mr. Kowaltschuk wrote a memo urging Mr. Green’s firing — and before long “Father Pat” was out.
Richard Kowaltschuk is our latest Bad Boss of the Month.
Mr. Green filed a lawsuit against South Pasadena, claiming disability discrimination and other violations of California law. A Los Angeles jury sided with Mr. Green, awarding him damages of almost $4.8 million, an amount that was later reduced to about $1.7 million by the trial judge. Mr. Green’s victory withstood an appeal; last year he was paid more than $3.6 million, an amount that included his substantial legal costs.
Mr. Green had wanted to be a cop ever since watching Adam-12 as a kid. After failing third grade he was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD, attending a special education program for years, yet his zeal for law enforcement never flagged: He signed up to be a Police Explorer at 14. An ethos of public service was “instilled from my parents,” he explained at trial. His father was a World War II pilot; several of his siblings have served their communities, including in the police.
Mr. Green disclosed his disabilities on his police academy application, he testified, and they were widely known and accepted at work. As a cop he visited schools to talk with kids who had dyslexia and ADHD, to show them that their dreams were still possible.
Former police chief Joseph Payne acknowledged in court documents that Mr. Green’s reports and investigations were affected by his disabilities — but he noted that co-workers often helped out their friend, and that Mr. Green’s community-relations skills were “probably better than just about anybody else in the department.”
At trial, one supervisor called Mr. Green “an excellent officer.” Positive evaluations were entered into evidence: In one internal memo, a captain wrote that Mr. Green “is much too valuable an employee to let [poor] report writing stand in his way.”
Mr. Kowaltschuk disagreed, however, and peppered Mr. Green with negative feedback and nuisance investigations, according to testimony. In conversations, the captain was “often angry and a bit of a martinet,” a witness told jurors, while Mr. Green was “always very proper and courteous and restrained.”
The traffic incident happened in January 2012. During an overnight shift, Mr. Green pulled over a driver for minor speeding — but then got sidetracked by nearby suspicious activity, he testified, allowing the original offender to leave. Although Mr. Green didn’t know it at the time, the driver had been drinking and minutes earlier had left the scene of a fender bender, according to testimony.
The driver later turned himself in; he wasn’t prosecuted for any of his early-morning actions, according to court documents. Still, Mr. Kowaltschuk launched an internal probe based on discrepancies between the driver’s account and that of Mr. Green. Among the questions: Why didn’t Mr. Green realize the driver had been drinking — or ask about the car’s newly damaged front end?
Mr. Green explained that he had spoken to the driver only briefly while standing near the back of the car, but Mr. Kowaltschuk said that simply wasn’t credible, according to documents. When the investigating sergeant declined to recommend any discipline, Mr. Kowaltschuk asked him to alter the findings to include an allegation of dishonesty. The sergeant refused, testifying that he believed Mr. Kowaltschuk was “going after Pat because of his disabilities, like he’s been out for him for years.”
Undeterred, Mr. Kowaltschuk commandeered the matter and sent a memo to then-Chief Payne — who had been supportive of Mr. Green’s career — recommending that the dyslexic officer be fired for lying and negligence, according to court records. The captain’s recommendation was based partly on his own recreations of the incident, which an expert described in court as improper and flawed.
The chief didn’t take Mr. Kowaltschuk’s advice, but he agreed that Mr. Green hadn’t been diligent enough. The officer’s ultimate punishment: A six-day suspension, to be stayed if Mr. Green completed training to help mitigate the effect of his learning disabilities.
Except then, just a few weeks later, Chief Payne retired.
On his very first day as acting chief, newcomer Arthur Miller reviewed Mr. Green’s file — including Mr. Kowaltschuk’s arguments about dishonesty. Based on that record, Acting Chief Miller concluded that Mr. Green had made statements “with intent to deceive.” The stayed suspension, he said, was “too lenient,” according to documents in the case.
After some back-and-forth, Mr. Green was terminated in August 2013 — and his life quickly cratered.
He tried to find another job in law enforcement but “nobody would touch me for getting fired for lying,” he testified; he ended up overseeing maintenance for several Mexican restaurants owned by a family he has known since childhood. He took medication for depression and sleeplessness, but found the side effects intolerable. Eventually he found that exercise helped to stave off his despair.
According to a doctor who spoke at trial, Mr. Green has suffered from the symptoms of major depressive disorder — and, even more deeply, the loss of identity that came from being fired for dishonesty.
“He really viewed himself as a good cop,” the doctor testified, but now “he can’t ever be a police officer, which is something that he was really proud of and fought for. … [T]hat’s not going to go away.”
For his suffering, past and future, the jury awarded Mr. Green $4 million. South Pasadena argued the amount was excessive and the trial judge agreed, giving Mr. Green a choice of a new trial or a $3.1 million reduction in his non-economic damages. He took the slashed damages. South Pasadena and Mr. Green both appealed the outcome, but an appellate court affirmed the final judgment.
Last year Mr. Green asked the city to reclassify his firing as an honorable retirement, and to grant him a retired police badge.
So far the city has declined.
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Green v. City of South Pasadena. 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.
Mr. Green was represented by The Law Offices of Vincent Miller.