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.
This Bad Boss Froze Out Her Employee as a “Non-Believer.” He Complained and Ended Up Working Next to a Urinal.
Rasean Johnson was a proud third-generation employee of the City of San Diego. He loved his job in the downtown City Clerk’s Office — until Sheila Beale became his supervisor.
A demonstrative Christian, Ms. Beale regularly proclaimed her religious beliefs in the workplace. According to a federal lawsuit filed by Mr. Johnson, she led “prayer sessions” during staff meetings, touted the virtues of attending church, and inquired about employees’ religious affiliations.
During one performance review, Ms. Beale instructed Mr. Johnson to read the Bible because “even good people go to hell if they don’t give their life to the word of God,” his complaint alleged. She told one of his direct reports to ignore him as a “non-believer,” according to the complaint, and she later assigned Mr. Johnson entry-level work after he refused to pray with her.
Mr. Johnson finally went to his labor union, the San Diego Municipal Employees Association. MEA filed a grievance with the city, accusing Ms. Beale of creating a hostile work environment and discriminating against Mr. Johnson and two other employees.
While the investigation proceeded, Ms. Beale stripped Mr. Johnson of his supervisory duties, reassigned his staff to another manager, and excluded him from projects, he said in his federal complaint. Even after the city had corroborated much of Ms. Beale’s alleged behavior, according to testimony, the only option it offered Mr. Johnson was a transfer to a different job site.
He reluctantly made the move, only to end up in a repurposed storage space with a hole that opened into the plumbing of a neighboring space: The men’s bathroom.
Sheila Beale is our new Bad Boss of the Month.
Mr. Johnson filed a lawsuit against the City of San Diego claiming religious discrimination, a hostile work environment, and retaliation. His retaliation claim reached trial in May 2019, and a federal jury awarded him $350,000. The parties have since reached a settlement.
Mr. Johnson had started working for the city in 2004 as a stock clerk in the Records Management Department, according to court documents. It took six or seven applications before he finally landed the job, Mr. Johnson testified, but working with the city was important to him. He was following in the footsteps of many relatives who worked for the city, including his grandfather and great-grandfather.
“It’s a family thing,” he said at trial.
At first, the atmosphere in the clerk’s office was “wonderful,” he recalled. He saw budding politicians launch their careers, and he was friendly with each mayor in office. He had a mentor in the deputy director of his department. He loved the work he did, especially his dream of digitizing records and making them available online. At trial, he called this project his “baby.”
Then Mr. Johnson began reporting to Ms. Beale, according to court documents — and the topic of religion suddenly entered the workplace.
On one occasion, Ms. Beale quizzed Mr. Johnson about Prop 8, a California ballot initiative that banned same-sex marriage and later was found unconstitutional. Is it “okay if gays marry?” she asked, according to Mr. Johnson’s complaint. Hearing that Mr. Johnson had no problem with it, she told him he was “not a child of God.”
Another time, according to court filings, Ms. Beale singled out Mr. Johnson during a staff meeting because his relationship with his girlfriend was not “blessed,” she said — they weren’t “married under the Lord.”
By 2013, Mr. Johnson oversaw a six-person staff plus volunteers but still reported to Ms. Beale. Chafing and feeling marginalized by her religious zeal, he applied for a job with the nearby city of Chula Vista.
Mr. Johnson ranked highly among the applicants, according to court documents. During the interview process, however, he was shocked to see that Ms. Beale sat on Chula Vista’s Civil Service Commission and was a part of the hiring committee for the position. Mr. Johnson did not get the job — and after that, he testified, Ms. Beale’s religious scrutiny only grew.
A reckoning came the following year. In a deposition, Mr. Johnson recalled that Ms. Beale called him into her office upon his return to the office after a bereavement. She grabbed Mr. Johnson’s hands and began praying for him, he testified, but he rebuffed her and insisted on getting back to work.
Soon afterward, he said, Ms. Beale sent him to extract hundreds of archived records from the basement for scanning — a rote job usually performed by a records stock clerk, the same entry-level position Mr. Johnson had held a decade prior. Finally fed up, Mr. Johnson contacted his union and filed a grievance. Inevitably, Ms. Beale heard about his action.
“I was hurt,” she said at trial.
While the investigation was ongoing, Mr. Johnson claimed in court filings, Ms. Beale curtailed his authority and reassigned his staff elsewhere. He reported the retaliation to his union rep.
Then Ms. Beale learned that the city had granted Mr. Johnson’s request to be removed from her direct supervision. She informed Elena Mendoza, a co-worker of Mr. Johnson, that she’d serve as Mr. Johnson’s manager — but she testified at trial that she failed to tell Mr. Johnson that his request had been approved.
He found out the hard way: He e-mailed Ms. Beale and received an out-of-office reply that listed people to contact for various concerns. In the e-mail filed with the court, Ms. Mendoza was incorrectly listed with Mr. Johnson’s title: Imaging Supervisor.
“I was surprised,” Mr. Johnson said at trial. “Typically, my name should’ve been right there.”
Ms. Beale testified that the e-mail error was “just an oversight.” Mr. Johnson, on the other hand, said he felt targeted.
Tensions grew. Mr. Johnson testified at trial that Ms. Beale stopped speaking directly to him: She didn’t return his “good mornings” and would ask Ms. Mendoza to relay comments to him even when all three were physically together. He was excluded from staff meetings and even from casual conversations, he said.
“I felt like an elephant in the room every time,” Mr. Johnson said at trial. “If you ever felt that way, it’s not good, especially when you got your heart and soul in what you’re doing.”
After five months of investigation, Mr. Johnson received a letter saying the city had found sufficient evidence to support his allegation of a hostile work environment. By this point, however, Ms. Beale had relegated him to the basement to take inventory and mark boxes, he testified; his access to computer systems was limited, and some of his keys were taken. Ms. Beale remained closely involved in his management, even writing his performance evaluation the month after the investigation concluded — more typically a task for Ms. Mendoza, his new direct supervisor, according to testimony.
Despite city policy, Mr. Johnson didn’t get a mediation session to resolve his grievance, according to testimony. He was given only two options, he told the court: Put up with the situation, or transfer. Although he didn’t want to leave the clerk’s office, Mr. Johnson decided he had no choice.
He knew little about his new job, he testified, until he was told to report to the Public Utilities Department operation yard, where he would catalog water meters that were being taken out of service.
“It made me sick,” he told jurors. The only good part about it: “I got out from under Sheila Beale.”
At trial, Mr. Johnson described his new office as a “converted closet.” A hole in the wall allowed the smell from the men’s urinal next door to waft into his space every day. On rainy days or whenever there was a backup, Mr. Johnson testified, the smell was even worse.
Ms. Beale, meanwhile, testified that she felt “relieved” by Mr. Johnson’s transfer. “It was just a stressful situation,” she said.
Ms. Beale told the court that no one ever discussed with her the findings in the city’s 20-page investigative report into her behavior — although her boss, Elizabeth Maland, testified to giving Ms. Beale confidential “corrective action” in writing.
Ms. Maland also said at trial that she ordered department-wide training in response to the conflict over Ms. Beale’s conduct. Still, she admitted to telling the H.R. department that Mr. Johnson’s transfer would make things “better.”
In a deposition, Mr. Johnson said he felt his career had been “derailed.” He filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and, after a period of investigation, received a letter giving him the right to sue the municipality he had worked so hard to join.
“I lost the ability to look at the city logo and be proud of it,” Mr. Johnson said at trial. “I [used to feel] a sense of importance where I worked at. I felt a part of the team. Now I just take a piece of paper by the stacks and put it in the database and file accordingly.”
Although the jury found in Mr. Johnson’s favor, his monetary award was reduced to $300,000 because of a statutory cap on non-economic damages, commonly known as pain and suffering. The San Diego City Council subsequently voted to settle his case for $565,000, including attorney fees.
Sheila Beale remains a deputy director in the Office of the City Clerk, according to its Web site.
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Johnson 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.
Mr. Johnson was represented by Smith Steiner Vanderpool, APC.
Running a Nashville Studio with His Famous Wife, This Bad Boss Hit a Series of Wrong Notes
Country music star Martina McBride and her husband John founded Blackbird Studio, a recording facility in Nashville, Tenn., in 2002. Along with Ms. McBride herself, Blackbird’s high-profile clients have ranged from Adele to the Zac Brown Band.
In 2012 Mr. McBride hired Richard Hanson as Blackbird’s operations manager, a job that grew to include oversight of assistant engineers and unpaid interns. According to documents filed in a subsequent lawsuit, Mr. Hanson quickly became concerned that some studio staff weren’t being paid properly for overtime hours — and that interns weren’t getting any educational benefit from menial chores set by Mr. McBride, who ran the facility.
Among other duties, according to court documents, interns had to clean toilets, pick up groceries and lottery tickets for the McBride family, and buy a endless stream of phone chargers for Mr. McBride, who kept breaking them. Both McBrides would publicly “yell at, scold and chastise” interns when a chore wasn’t done to their liking, according to Mr. Hanson’s complaint.
Plus there was the time an intern was asked to prowl around the McBrides’ home with a gun, the lawsuit said.
On several occasions Mr. Hanson informed Mr. McBride that Blackbird might be violating federal labor laws, according to testimony. Things came to a head, Mr. Hanson told the court, when an intern was unfairly blamed for failing to deliver lunch to Ms. McBride at her home. Frustrated, Mr. Hanson contacted the U.S. Department of Labor to see if Blackbird’s practices were legal.
Upon learning of Mr. Hanson’s inquiry, Mr. McBride fired him on the spot. “I’m f***ing done with you,” a court order quotes him as saying. “Get your s*** and get the f*** out of my studio.”
John McBride is our latest Bad Boss of the Month.
Mr. Hanson filed a complaint against the McBrides and Blackbird, claiming illegal retaliation for his good-faith concerns about labor practices. Ms. McBride, the singer, was dismissed as an individual defendant — but early in 2020 a federal jury found her husband and Blackbird liable for about $160,000 in damages.
This month the trial judge awarded Mr. Hanson a further $200,000 to cover attorney fees and interest. Because Mr. McBride fired his employee for an improper reason, the judge wrote in her order, he had himself to blame for “numerous sensitive and embarrassing facts [being] brought to light in a public forum.”
Though his background was in sound engineering, Rich Hanson had never really fit into the Blackbird scene. He was popular with clients and won praise for “his technical abilities and being able to make things happen the way they were supposed to,” the studio’s manager testified, but he also wore people out — including Mr. McBride, the owner — with incessant critiques.
“There were many times where I asked him to calm down, or to chill, or to take a deep breath,” Mr. Hanson’s superior Rolff Zwiep said in a deposition, “and he didn’t even hear me. He would just talk over me.”
Mr. Hanson was especially focused on overtime issues and the treatment of Blackbird’s unpaid interns, who complained in court filings that they were regarded, in essence, as cleaners and personal servants to the McBrides.
One recent college graduate, for instance, wrote that he never received “any sort of training/advice on music recording” during his Blackbird internship, “which was the entire reason I was there in the first place.” Instead, he wrote, he was asked to dust, do food runs, and to pack up equipment and clean toilets after late-night sessions.
Another intern wrote that, in addition to scrubbing toilets, he would mop, vacuum, and do dishes in a shift that ran from 6:00pm to 6:00am. A graduate of audio engineering school, he often ended up taking orders from the McBrides’ young daughters, who would call Blackbird requesting candy — which the intern said he had to buy and deliver to the family home.
“Learning was not a large part of my internship,” he wrote, “but … I can clean your toilet so well you could eat off of it.” When this intern sought employment in Nashville afterward, he said, he was “laughed off the phone” and told that Blackbird “only produces talented cleaners.” Four years later he was waiting tables.
The gun incident happened one night when both McBrides were out of town, according to testimony and court documents, and a sitter was minding two McBride daughters. Believing there was an intruder, one of the daughters had called Mr. McBride — who, rather than contacting police, called Blackbird at 1:30am and asked for an intern to check it out.
(In a deposition, Mr. McBride acknowledged the request and said he frequently asked Blackbird staff to check the security of his home, involving interns “probably three or four times.”)
Two interns and an assistant engineer arrived at the house, where the worried sitter declined to call the police, asked the Blackbird people to secure the house, and gave them a loaded gun, according to court documents. As the only person familiar with firearms, one of the interns took the weapon and led a search of the property. There was no sign of an intruder, but the sitter remained uneasy and took the McBride girls elsewhere to sleep, according to a witness’ summary.
The intern later wrote to Mr. Hanson that he knew he’d sometimes have to “perform some less than desirable tasks” — but that risking personal harm “went so far beyond what I signed up for,” according to an e-mail filed with the court.
Mr. Hanson’s breaking point came in June 2017, the day Ms. McBride didn’t get her lunch fast enough.
An intern had been told to pick up food from The Tavern, a local eatery, and deliver it to the country singer at home. When the star didn’t have her food an hour later, Mr. Hanson recalled in a deposition, her husband became “very angry … and he demanded that [a second intern] go back to the restaurant and pick up another order.”
Mr. Hanson knew the food had been delivered: The first intern already had reported back to Blackbird with the receipt, he testified. It turned out that Ava, the McBrides’ youngest daughter, had accepted the food but forgotten to tell her mom.
In his deposition, Mr. McBride conceded that his daughter “may have had something to do with it,” but still faulted Mr. Hanson for being wound so tight. “A negative attitude is not a good thing to have in a recording studio,” Mr. McBride testified. “It’s a creative environment where … the vibe is very important.”
Steamed at “the accumulation of all the things … over my course of employment,” Mr. Hanson logged onto the Department of Labor’s Web site and filled out a form to report that his employer was “using unpaid interns in a manner that wasn’t appropriate, and also was not paying certain staff members overtime that they were due,” he said in a deposition.
Shortly afterward, Mr. Hanson told Mr. Zwiep what he had done — and Mr. Zwiep promptly informed Mr. McBride. According to court documents, Mr. McBride called Mr. Hanson and lit into him: “I hear you have a f***ing problem and you’re going to call the Better Business Bureau [sic] or some f***ing s***.”
When Mr. Hanson corrected him, saying he had already contacted the Department of Labor, Mr. McBride fired him.
In a deposition, Mr. McBride testified that “the straw that broke the camel’s back was the lunchtime fiasco” — but claimed he didn’t fire Mr. Hanson because of the DOL report. In fact, he said, he already had made plans to fire Mr. Hanson and was waiting only for his intended replacement to return from a European honeymoon.
Mr. Hanson’s firing didn’t stop the DOL investigation that he had triggered, which ultimately found ten separate overtime violations at Blackbird. Mr. McBride agreed to pay staff members more than $40,000 in back wages and damages.
The Blackbird internship program, however, didn’t draw any sanction. Although the interns were unpaid, the DOL said, they got some experience and received educational credit as agreed. The youngsters were “the primary beneficiaries of the relationship,” the investigator concluded.
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Hanson v. McBride. 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. Hanson was represented by Morgan & Morgan, P.A..
This Bad Boss Gave Her Director-Level Work — But Found Reasons Not to Give Her a Matching Title
Crystal Trawick was a homegrown success at Carmike Cinemas, a Georgia-based chain of minor-market movieplexes that drew crowds with its extra activities such as mini golf, rollerskating, and video games.
Ms. Trawick started at Carmike the age of 19 as a part-time laser tag attendant. By the time she left she had been promoted nine times and served as the company’s top marketing official. She reported to Fred Van Noy, Carmike’s chief operating officer, and drew praise from the company’s CEO.
But even though Ms. Trawick functioned as a director-level executive at publicly traded Carmike, Mr. Van Noy declined to give her a title or salary that matched her responsibilities, according to court filings. When she pressed the matter, she was told she’d need a bachelor’s degree to be named as a director — a credential held by neither her boss, who like her had joined Carmike as a teenager, nor by Ms. Trawick’s most obvious male peer at the company, the director of advertising.
Indeed, the marketing job was Carmike’s only director position to require a bachelor’s degree, Mr. Van Noy told a jury — and the requirement was added only after Ms. Trawick had assumed the role on an informal basis.
When Ms. Trawick persisted, Mr. Van Noy became increasingly harsh and demanding with her, according to testimony. He didn’t pass along her complaints of unfairness to Carmike’s H.R. department, he told jurors. And ultimately he launched an investigation into Ms. Trawick’s handling of a minor sponsorship. He fired her for “insubordination” during the probe, he testified — not because he found any wrongdoing.
Fred Van Noy is our new Bad Boss of the Month.
Ms. Trawick filed a lawsuit against Carmike, claiming sexual discrimination, retaliation, and other wrongdoing. In September a federal jury awarded her more than $1.1 million in damages on the discrimination claim, an amount that was slashed to $367,000 based on statutory limits. Carmike didn’t appeal and earlier this year paid Ms. Trawick more than $1 million, an amount that included her substantial legal costs.
A child of divorce and poverty in Alabama, Ms. Trawick had lived in her mother’s car and in shelters until she was adopted at nine by a grandmother who turned out to be abusive — driving her into foster care as a teenager, she testified. Although she won a scholarship to attend Troy State University in Troy, Ala., she dropped out to work at Carmike, which quickly became, she said at trial, “my life.”
Based in Columbus, Ga., just across the Alabama border, the company targeted small markets and called itself “America’s Hometown Theatre.” Ms. Trawick enjoyed a steadily rising career there, gathering experience in film buying, theater operations, and marketing — and also participating in civic organizations and joining local boards, which Carmike CEO David Passman encouraged her to do, according to testimony.
In 2012 Ms. Trawick joined Carmike’s marketing department at the invitation of Mr. Van Noy, he testified — and when he fired the incumbent marketing director not long afterward, he asked her to assume most of the man’s duties. He didn’t upgrade her title, he acknowledged, or give her a raise to reflect her new responsibilities.
At the time Ms. Trawick had just completed an associate’s degree from Chattahoochee Valley Community College by taking classes “here and there as I could” over more than a decade at Carmike, she testified. Mr. Passman, the Carmike CEO, had urged her to “finish” her college education, she testified, so in 2013 she began classes at a nearby Troy campus in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree — but she found the work impossible to complete because of her expanded duties.
“My hours had severely increased,” she testified. “I took two [classes] and I wasn’t able to manage the workload.”
That year Ms. Trawick earned just under $43,000 at Carmike, based on a W-2 form shown at trial, while the fired marketing director had earned at least $95,000 in salary, according to testimony. During an annual review in the second half of 2013, Mr. Van Noy told Ms. Trawick “he did not realize how little I was being paid,” she told jurors — yet his only action was to grant a four-percent bump for her “exceeded expectations” evaluation.
Ms. Trawick continued as Carmike’s de facto marketing director through 2014 and most of 2015, traveling extensively and even attending conference calls from home during her maternity leave under pressure from Mr. Van Noy, she testified. Executives often referred to her as the director of marketing; Mr. Van Noy even introduced her that way publicly during a theater opening, she testified.
Other Carmike officials began to ask Mr. Van Noy why he hadn’t formally promoted their colleague. One division manager, Jim Lucas, testified that Mr. Van Noy said he’d never elevate Ms. Trawick unless he was forced to do so — and gestured upward, indicating that such an order could come only from above.
“And who was up there?” Mr. Lucas was asked.
“Well, it was either [CEO] David Passman or the Lord,” he replied.
According to Mr. Lucas, Mr. Van Noy behaved more harshly in meetings toward Ms. Trawick than toward her male counterpart Shannon Sailors, the company’s director of advertising. At trial, evidence showed that when Mr. Sailors and Ms. Trawick both received positive performance ratings in 2014 — along with identical comments from Mr. Van Noy — Mr. Sailors got a higher percentage raise than Ms. Trawick, expanding the gap in their base salaries to 37 percent.
Asked in front of the jury whether he could explain the discrepancy in raises, Mr. Van Noy said, simply, “No.”
Finally, in August 2015, Ms. Trawick became more aggressive. She had been approached by a headhunter about switching companies, but she wanted to stay at Carmike. At a meeting with Mr. Van Noy, she told jurors, she made what she described as a discrimination complaint, comparing herself to Mr. Sailors and saying she needed the director title and a pay increase.
At trial, Mr. Van Noy denied that Ms. Trawick complained of being underpaid. He admitted that he never discussed her pay or title with Carmike’s H.R. director and that, around that time, he started interviewing a series of men for the director job — or possibly a newly invented senior position above Ms. Trawick. Frustrated, Ms. Trawick took her problem to Mr. Passman, the Carmike CEO.
Mr. Passman had previously been generous in his praise for Ms. Trawick’s work, lauding her in company e-mails as a “star” and “Superwoman.” Earlier that year, she testified, when she told him that she planned to talk about the glass ceiling in a speech she’d been invited to give to her community college, he had acknowledged its existence and its injustice. Yet in this latest meeting he still insisted, she recalled to jurors, that she’d need to get her bachelor’s degree before advancing because “men are going to require that of you, whether it’s with this company or any company.”
This was the first time Ms. Trawick heard that her academic record was being used to hold her back; Mr. Van Noy had known but never told her, he testified. Meanwhile, neither Mr. Van Noy, Mr. Sailors, nor Mr. Lucas had a bachelor’s degree. According to testimony, Ms. Trawick was the only internal director candidate to whom such a requirement was applied.
At a pre-trial hearing, Ms. Trawick’s attorney lumped Mr. Passman and Mr. Van Noy together as “two bad actors” and cited a pattern of good-old-boy discrimination at the higher levels of Carmike. It was Mr. Van Noy, however, who took the lead role here.
Shortly after Ms. Trawick met with the CEO, Mr. Van Noy and another executive called her into a meeting to discuss a Carmike sponsorship she had helped to secure for Quadrille, a women’s society club in which she was a leader — and they also walked her through various expense submissions, all of which had been approved by Mr. Van Noy, she testified. Carmike executives routinely requested donations for community groups with which they were involved, jurors heard, with cross-checks in place to avoid self-dealing.
Although the $2,000 Quadrille sponsorship had been approved by Mr. Sailors, Ms. Trawick found herself under official investigation and Mr. Van Noy instructed her not to “poll [her] peers” during the process, she told the court. Just a day later, on a Friday, Mr. Van Noy asked if she had talked to anyone: He’d heard a report that she did. Ms. Trawick said she had spoken with a subordinate about an aspect of the matter, she testified, and she railed against the idea that she’d misuse Carmike funds as “just insulting and not true.”
Irritated, Mr. Van Noy immediately looked to fire Ms. Trawick — notwithstanding Carmike’s policy of step-by-step discipline. After the weekend he got an OK from Mr. Passman, who professed to jurors his disappointment that his “high hopes for Crystal” had been dashed. The next day Mr. Van Noy told the 17-year Carmike veteran the price for her “insubordination” and the loss of his confidence.
At trial, Mr. Van Noy affirmed that the termination wasn’t based on any investigatory finding, but rather on Ms. Trawick’s internal discussions about the probe. He gave her “the option to resign” as a face-saving measure, Ms. Trawick testified, but she didn’t want to do that.
Ms. Trawick suffered from the abrupt firing “physically, emotionally, and mentally,” her husband testified — and gossip about it dogged her efforts to bounce back in Columbus’ tight business community. Although she quickly accepted a job as director of marketing for Childcare Network of Georgia, the woman she was replacing “told me she got a call that I had been fired from Carmike for stealing money,” she testified.
After she switched to a two-year gig as COO at a small local movie company, she heard the same rumors via a potential investor. “Everywhere I go, I think people are talking about it,” she said in court. “I don’t do as much in the community as I used to, because I don’t want to be … I feel shamed.”
By the time of the trial, Ms. Trawick said, she hadn’t had a job for some time. “I’m still broken,” she testified.
Mr. Van Noy, meanwhile, described himself to jurors as “retired.” Not long after he fired Ms. Trawick, the giant theater chain AMC announced it would acquire Carmike — and Mr. Van Noy was reportedly set to walk away with cash and stock worth almost $9 million.
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Trawick v. Carmike Cinemas, 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. Trawick was represented at trial by Prebula & Associates LLC.
This Bad Boss Offered to Be Her Mentor — But Instead Became a Tormentor
In college, Michelle Tulino set her sights on working for the New York City government — somewhere she could help people “from the ground up,” she told a court.
An internship at the city’s Department of Small Business Services (DSBS) only strengthened her resolve, as she worked happily with woman- and minority-owned businesses while reporting to a “strong woman [who] taught me how women are able to make change in society,” she testified.
After school she snagged a full-time job as client services manager at DSBS — and that’s when she met Shaazad Ali, an assistant DSBS commissioner who would turn her dream job into an ordeal.
According to Ms. Tulino’s testimony, Mr. Ali presented himself as someone who could accept H.R. complaints for the agency. When she told him that her new male boss had crudely propositioned her, however, he replied that sexual demands from managers were simply part of the DSBS culture and “he couldn’t do anything about it,” she testified.
As an alternative, she told jurors, Mr. Ali said he’d act as her personal mentor and protector.
Over the next few years, according to testimony, the assistant commissioner — married and some 30 years older than Ms. Tulino — preyed on the inexperienced employee by gaslighting her about how other managers saw her; by inviting her out and giving her gifts; by probing her private life in unwelcome ways; and by accusing her of harming his health with her rebuffs.
Eventually Mr. Ali made a place for Ms. Tulino in his own operation and installed her in a cubicle near his office. He expressed jealousy of her friendship with a male employee, he admitted in court. And in one especially unnerving display, Mr. Ali slapped himself on the face and berated himself when Ms. Tulino challenged his truthfulness, an incident he also acknowledged to jurors.
Matters reached a head immediately afterward, as Mr. Ali tried to force himself on Ms. Tulino, she testified. The shaken employee geared up to file a complaint — not with Mr. Ali this time — while he retaliated by removing her access to work tools and changing her reporting structure in what she viewed as a demotion, jurors heard.
After an internal investigation found insufficient evidence to support her allegations of harassment, Ms. Tulino testified, she was told to continue working under Mr. Ali — or to leave.
She resigned and, according to testimony, has been psychologically unable to work since.
Shaazad Ali is our new Bad Boss of the Month.
Ms. Tulino sued the City of New York, Mr. Ali, and other officials. Last year a federal jury awarded Ms. Tulino $2 million in emotional damages, later reduced by the judge to $1.5 million. Her case is currently on appeal, with arguments scheduled for mid-2020.
In court Michelle Tulino described herself as a “first-generation American” with Italian and Polish parents. Growing up in Brooklyn, she was taught to value education and hard work.
At DSBS, however, she encountered a culture where sexual favors were expected for advancement, she testified — a sharp contrast to the idyllic internship that had drawn her to the agency. At trial she cried when describing the letdown, to the point that defense attorneys griped to the judge, who declined to intervene. Continuing, Ms. Tulino told jurors of an early supervisor who bluntly told her “that he wanted to f*** me in the back of his car — excuse my language.”
She rejected the advance and approached Mr. Ali, she testified, but the assistant commissioner told her there was no Equal Employment Opportunity process at DSBS, and that “women [are expected] to have sex with the male executives.” Since she didn’t want to do that, she told jurors, Mr. Ali offered to help her “navigate the discriminatory culture.”
In an early example of such help, Ms. Tulino testified, Mr. Ali warned her that she was on the DSBS commissioner’s “s**t list” for declining an invitation to drinks. Mr. Ali said she was in danger of demotion or firing, she testified — but added that he could “help me find a way to stay employed” because “he holds the purse strings.” Mr. Ali pushed Ms. Tulino to switch jobs within DSBS, which she did.
The relationship took a darker turn, Ms. Tulino told jurors, when Mr. Ali began informing her that “his male colleagues and friends” were calling her a “slut” and a “whore” and wanted nude photographs of her — news that she described as “a slap in the face.”
“I wanted him to do something about it,” she testified. “I wanted him to write them up, make a report about it, do something to punish them for it. … And he said, ‘You can’t change the way people think.'”
Ms. Tulino withdrew from him as a result, she told jurors, but Mr. Ali became persistent: He sent “continuous e-mails, voice mails, phone calls”; came to her desk and left notes asking why she wouldn’t answer his calls; even texted her as she attended the funeral of a coworker’s husband, asking “where I was and why wasn’t I answering the phone.”
Mr. Ali complained of being unappreciated, she said at trial, accusing her of causing him ulcers and painting her as “worst person in the world” for being cold to him. Finally he cornered her in a dark area near the freight elevators, she testified.
“You are treating me like a dog,” she said he told her angrily. “How could you do this to me?” Ms. Tulino testified that she was “very, very fearful” as she finally saw “the real face of Shaz Ali,” which she described being “almost like a bear coming at you.”
For some time after that explosion, she said, things calmed down. Ms. Tulino switched jobs again, seeking a promotion that Mr. Ali told her was elusive because other managers believed salacious rumors about her — or because only he recognized her skills, she testified.
Frustrated, Ms. Tulino finally took a job with Mr. Ali as her direct supervisor. It came with a price: She was now “under his complete control all day long,” she said at trial.
Even within his own group, Mr. Ali made Ms. Tulino aware that she faced obstacles: Several co-workers now believed that she was sleeping with Mr. Ali, she testified — and he seemed not only to tolerate these false rumors, but to relish discussing them.
Mr. Ali’s creepiness kept escalating, according to court documents. In her complaint in the case, Ms. Tulino alleged that Mr. Ali asked her for “special pictures” of herself and revealed that he was using her birth date for all his own passwords, she alleged.
Mr. Ali also got physical, she said in court. In one incident, she testified, he grabbed her wrist as they passed in the hallway and spun her around. She was upset because she had just received bad news about her father’s health. “He starts to embrace me and put his face closer to me,” she recalled. “I couldn’t break his grasp.”
Ms. Tulino’s father died shortly afterward, and she began talking with a male coworker who had also lost a parent. Mr. Ali became jealous, according to Ms. Tulino, and told her she shouldn’t be talking to other men. She ignored him.
Finally, Ms. Tulino testified, Mr. Ali called her into his office on November 12, 2014, and again told her to “limit my conversations with that boy — that man.” People were talking about them, Mr. Ali claimed, and now “he has to answer” to the agency’s H.R. director for her actions, she testified.
“It’s always the same story” with Mr. Ali, she said in court. “Someone’s talking about you. I have to protect you about it.”
Except this time, Ms. Tulino testified, she broke the pattern.
“This day was the day,” she told jurors. “This was like a culmination of everything. All the years, all the days, every day …. And I said, I don’t believe you. I don’t believe a thing you’re saying.”
It was then, she recalled, that “Mr. Ali lost his mind.”
“He was slapping himself in the face, calling himself ‘Stupid, stupid — I’m so stupid, I should have left you in [the previous, lesser job] where you belong.'”
In the courtroom, the jury heard a recording that Ms. Tulino had surreptitiously made of the confrontation. Mr. Ali admitted to its content — including his expression of jealousy — and also admitted that he had slapped himself, although he indicated in court that it was more of a “gesture” than a real slap.
Mr. Ali saw Ms. Tulino as a “special friend,” he testified, but he didn’t try to kiss her or force himself on her in any way.
As the November 14 confrontation ended, Ms. Tulino told Mr. Ali she would file a complaint with the agency’s internal EEO office — and Mr. Ali told her in turn that she was “finished.” As she got ready to leave, however, Mr. Ali walked into her cubicle and pushed her against a filing cabinet, she testified.
“He [had] his leg in between my legs,” she told the court. “And he’s holding my arms down and we’re struggling. And he’s trying to kiss me and I’m pushing him off and pushing him off.”
Mr. Ali testified that the incident never happened.
A few days later, Mr. Ali ordered Ms. Tulino to turn in her BlackBerry mobile phone and took other actions that she reported to the agency’s H.R. office as retaliatory. She followed up with an EEO complaint against Mr. Ali.
Meanwhile, Ms. Tulino testified, she was assigned to a new supervisor a level lower than Mr. Ali; frozen out of meetings; and given fewer assignments. “Eventually all of my work was taken away,” she told jurors.
The following May, the EEO investigation ended inconclusively. Although the report recommended a reassignment if possible, Ms. Tulino testified that officials told her in person to “go back to Shaazad Ali, or you have no place here.” Her complaint, she claimed they told her, had “offended the agency.”
Ms. Tulino resigned in early June. She told jurors that her dignity and self-esteem had been destroyed, that she was on multiple medications — including for nightmares — and that “every day is gray.” She has panic attacks “every single day,” she said; she doesn’t have friends, doesn’t socialize, and doesn’t feel comfortable in crowds.
The jury found Mr. Ali not liable on a claim of battery. U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff, meanwhile, dismissed Ms. Tulino’s claim for constructive discharge before it reached the jury — an outcome that her lawyers have appealed. Ms. Tulino’s $2 million award for emotional damages was excessive, Judge Rakoff ruled, knocking it down to a still-hefty $1.5 million while awarding attorney fees of more than $675,000.
Mr. Ali was relieved of his duties immediately after the trial but was allowed to retire with a likely six-figure pension, according to media reports.
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Tulino v. City of New York. 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. Tulino was represented at trial by PGP Law Group, LLC.
Facing a Bias Complaint, This Bad Boss Used a Café Surveillance Cam to Get His Accuser Fired
Yes, Tim Pruitt took a half-sandwich from the work cafeteria without paying for it.
But, no, he later testified, he did not steal that sandwich — his friend had paid for it ahead of time, as the friend confirmed under oath.
And yes, he failed to record a few hours properly on a time card — but it was an error made in haste, he testified, to which he had admitted as soon as he was notified.
Regardless, Mr. Pruitt was fired for these seemingly minor offenses by his boss at Genentech, Inc., Steven Graeff, who had been watching Mr. Pruitt extra-closely ever since the African American help desk technician reported him for unfair treatment, according to testimony.
To support the termination, Mr. Graeff teamed up with Mr. Pruitt’s former boss Daniel Williams — who also had been accused of racial bias by Mr. Pruitt, and who was a close work friend of Mr. Graeff — to ask Genentech’s security officer to pull video surveillance tapes of Mr. Pruitt’s movements, both men testified.
The two men confronted Mr. Pruitt with the accusations together, even though Mr. Williams had “no good reason” to be present, in the words of a judge who reviewed the matter, and Mr. Pruitt was quickly marched out of the California biotech company, where he had worked for 21 years, by a guard.
Steven Graeff is our new Bad Boss of the Month.
Mr. Pruitt filed a lawsuit against Genentech, claiming unlawful discrimination and retaliation, among other things. A federal judge allowed the retaliation-related claims to proceed and, in mid-2019, a jury awarded the fired employee nearly $235,000 in damages. An appeal was filed, but the case recently ended in a settlement.
For most of his two decades at Genentech, Mr. Pruitt testified, his experience had been positive. Raised with 10 siblings in a modest household in nearby Benicia, Calif., he earned an associate’s degree locally and was proud to have risen to earn more than $100,000 a year. He viewed Genentech as a “great company,” he told the jury, and he built friendships there that extended outside of work. He took vacations with colleagues to Athens, to see the 2004 Olympics, and to Brazil, to see the 2014 World Cup. His daughter got a job at the company, too.
Mr. Pruitt had started out as a contractor for the Bay Area company. In 1998 he was hired full-time and became the first IT employee to work at Genentech’s manufacturing facility in Vacaville, Calif., where he earned positive performance reviews for years. Mr. Williams was his manager for much of this time — and in 2012, according to testimony, he became the subject of Mr. Pruitt’s first discrimination complaint after writing a “performance counseling document” that Mr. Pruitt felt treated him differently than white employees.
Genentech cleared Mr. Williams, who is white, of racial bias. But it also instructed him to amend the counseling document, according to court filings. Mr. Williams followed up with a performance evaluation that was the lowest of Mr. Pruitt’s career — an act that Mr. Pruitt viewed as retaliatory, especially considering the awards he had received that year, he said in a court filing.
Mr. Williams ultimately moved to another position at Vacaville and Genentech hired Mr. Graeff, who also is white, to replace him. The two managers quickly became tight, eating lunch together two or three times a week, Mr. Graeff said in court. For the remainder of Mr. Pruitt’s time at Genentech, Mr. Williams kept popping up at key moments — despite being outside Mr. Pruitt’s chain of command.
Mr. Williams “is like Forrest Gump, only nefarious as far as we’re concerned,” one of Mr. Pruitt’s lawyers said at a hearing in the case.
At first, Mr. Pruitt told the jury, he was excited that Mr. Williams had been replaced by Mr. Graeff: “You know — new ideas, new manager.” Before long, however, he found that Mr. Graeff was watching his every move, according to testimony. The new manager would hover around Mr. Pruitt, track his breaks, and examine his time cards closely, a level of attention that Mr. Graeff didn’t undertake for white workers, according to court filings.
After being denied a promotion, Mr. Pruitt complained to Genentech’s employee relations department about unfair treatment. Soon afterward, he testified, Mr. Graeff started raising issues about time card inaccuracy. In a one-on-one meeting with the manager, Mr. Pruitt complained of feeling singled out, he told jurors, and Mr. Graeff reacted by being “very rude” to him. Stressed out, Mr. Pruitt began seeing a therapist and took an approved leave for depression and anxiety.
Mr. Pruitt wasn’t the only person feeling bias from Mr. Graeff. In a deposition, a contractor of Afghani national origin said he sometimes drove home “crying all the way” because Mr. Graeff had treated him abusively while questioning every aspect of his time card reports.
“I was afraid to even go to lunch,” testified Humayon Sarwari. “I brought food from home all the time, because I didn’t even want to go to the cafeteria, because when he’d see me [Mr. Graeff would say,] ‘What are you doing here?'” According to Mr. Sarwari, Mr. Graeff never acted this way toward white workers, who saw him as an “awesome guy.”
“He was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Mr. Sarwari testified.
(Jurors didn’t hear from Mr. Sarwari or some other witnesses because the judge focused the trial on events in June and July 2016 that might count as retaliation against Mr. Pruitt.)
Not long after Mr. Pruitt returned from his medical leave, he complained again to Genentech about Mr. Graeff’s behavior — this time explicitly labeling it as race discrimination. Genentech opened an investigation but didn’t interview Mr. Pruitt, according to court documents.
About a month later, on July 13, 2016, with the investigation still under way, Mr. Graeff sent Mr. Pruitt to work for a day at Genentech’s nearby office in Dixon, Calif., to cover for an employee who was out. Mr. Pruitt later told jurors that he left Dixon at lunchtime to pick up a prescription back in Vacaville — he suffers from glaucoma and was in pain — and was late returning because of traffic. He then left the Dixon office early because he was still feeling ill. He checked to ensure there were no important tasks pending, and he informed the site administrator, he testified.
Mr. Graeff, meanwhile, had decided to visit the Dixon facility that very afternoon. He asked Mr. Williams to come along with him — to make an introduction to an official whom he hadn’t yet met, he testified. (Mr. Graeff had been working at Genentech for about a year by now, according to filings.) He stopped by Mr. Pruitt’s desk and found him gone.
Mr. Graeff didn’t call Mr. Pruitt’s cellphone to get an explanation, nor did he tell Mr. Pruitt the next day, when they both were working in Vacaville, that he had failed to find him at Dixon. Instead, he told jurors, he waited another day and — while Mr. Pruitt was out — called the Dixon facility to ask for surveillance video so that he could clock Mr. Pruitt’s comings and goings.
As it turned out, Mr. Pruitt hadn’t yet filed a time card for the week in question. He believed he had done so, he testified, but it never registered in the system. (He had been having a technical issue, which he had previously reported to Genentech people including Mr. Graeff.) When Mr. Pruitt returned to work after the weekend, Mr. Graeff ordered him to file his card immediately. Mr. Pruitt complied within minutes — but in his haste he entered his standard hours for the day at Dixon, he testified, rather than reflecting the time he had missed.
Mr. Graeff didn’t discuss this discrepancy with his employee for almost two weeks, he acknowledged in court, until the day Mr. Pruitt was escorted from the building.
Then, on July 21, came the half-sandwich incident.
Mr. Pruitt had arranged to meet a friend, Thomas Barillaro, in the Genentech cafeteria. At a deposition, Mr. Barillaro testified that he paid for Mr. Pruitt’s lunch in advance, as he often did — but that Mr. Pruitt was delayed, so he left and assumed that Mr. Pruitt would pick up his pre-paid BLT later.
And indeed, on that day Mr. Pruitt walked into the cafeteria, got a half-sandwich, and walked out without paying. Unluckily for Mr. Pruitt, Mr. Graeff was in the cafeteria at the time — he was waiting for Mr. Williams, he testified — and saw the incident. He believed he had seen Mr. Pruitt stealing and, as Mr. Pruitt’s lawyer described it in court, the manager’s videotaped reaction resembled “a little victory dance.”
Once more Mr. Graeff didn’t ask Mr. Pruitt to explain himself. Instead, after lunch, he and Mr. Williams went to the Vacaville security office and asked for surveillance tape of the incident — which they later watched together with an employee relations representative, according to testimony.
A security specialist named Javier Vargaz dug a bit deeper, interviewing the cafeteria cashier on the same day as the incident. According to a declaration filed in the case, the cashier confirmed that an unknown “friend” had paid for Mr. Pruitt’s food that day. But the cashier’s account didn’t exactly match the video and, according to the document filed by Genentech, Mr. Vargaz concluded that the cashier must have been recollecting a separate incident “at some other time” than shown on the tape.
Throughout this time, Mr. Graeff had been communicating with the Genentech official responsible for investigating Mr. Pruitt’s claim of discrimination against him — and feeding the investigator, at the same time, his allegations of Mr. Pruitt’s own wrongdoing, according to testimony. No one informed Mr. Pruitt that he was under a cloud, however, or asked for his side of the story.
On July 25, Genentech informed Mr. Graeff (but not Mr. Pruitt) that the discrimination probe was over, and that the manager had been cleared. Mr. Graeff immediately made plans to put Mr. Pruitt on administrative leave — a likely prelude to firing — based on the time card and sandwich incidents, according to testimony.
The following day, Mr. Pruitt arrived at his desk to find a new meeting with Mr. Graeff on his calendar. He walked to Mr. Graeff’s office, only to be led to a small conference room where — to his surprise — Mr. Williams was waiting. When Mr. Pruitt expressed confusion about why Mr. Williams was present, he testified, Mr. Graeff said his friend was there to “help answer questions.”
In the event, Mr. Graeff, a former military police officer, did the speaking. He revealed that Mr. Pruitt had filed an incorrect time card for the day at Dixon — something Mr. Pruitt quickly acknowledged as a mistake — and also said that Mr. Pruitt had been caught on tape stealing a sandwich. It was the first time the employee had heard either accusation.
Flustered at Mr. Williams’ presence and Mr. Graeff’s hostile tone, Mr. Pruitt told the men he had paid for the sandwich before he even knew what day Mr. Graeff was talking about — a response that Genentech cited repeatedly as a “lie” at trial.
“I was very nervous and uncomfortable,” he told jurors. “And basically, I just knew [that] no matter what I said, it wouldn’t matter at that point.”
Mr. Pruitt was placed on leave, escorted out of the building, and shown to his car. Later that day, in a call with Genentech employee relations, he learned that his race discrimination complaint against Mr. Graeff had been closed, according to court documents.
The following day, Mr. Pruitt told jurors, Mr. Graeff called him at home to fire him officially — but first, he said, the manager noted that “he was putting me on speakerphone because Dan Williams was there with him also.”
After dropping the hammer, Mr. Graeff started to explain some logistical matters. A distraught Mr. Pruitt simply hung up. “I started crying,” he told the jury, “and I didn’t want [them] to hear that.”
Mr. Pruitt was 54 at the time he was fired and banned from Genentech’s facilities. He continues to look for a new job, he told jurors, but he is constrained by his age, his two-year degree, and his ongoing health problems. In 2017 his glaucoma finally caused him to lose vision in his left eye, he said, and back pain limits how far he can commute.
At trial his partner testified that the formerly social Mr. Pruitt became subdued and despondant after the firing, and saw his friends much less often. He couldn’t sleep properly anymore, she said, and now gets up several times a night to pace around the house. He continues to see a therapist and take anti-anxiety medication, according to testimony.
Mr. Pruitt did feel “great” when he got one temporary job, he said in court, but that position expired after four months and he returned to fruitless job-hunting. “I almost feel like I don’t have a life,” he said. His partner has taken a part-time retail job to help make ends meet, even though she had previously retired, he testified.
In court last year, jury members never learned of Mr. Pruitt’s explanation for the sandwich incident, since the judge had ruled it irrelevant to his specific retaliation claims. They didn’t hear Mr. Barillaro’s testimony that he had paid for his friend, or that the cafeteria cashier had confirmed the story — albeit with different details — before the firing. Instead, Genentech emphasized Mr. Pruitt’s “lie” about paying.
Nonetheless, the jury found that Mr. Pruitt’s termination was unlawfully based on his discrimination complaint against Mr. Graeff, and awarded him damages for past economic loss and emotional distress. He received no provision for ongoing harm, however, and in his appeal his attorneys said the trial judge had unfairly kept some matters out of the jury’s hands.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ordered the case into mediation, where the parties reached an undisclosed settlement. The matter was dismissed in November 2019.
» Read Mr. Pruitt’s complaint (originally filed in state court)
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Pruitt v. Genentech, Inc. We select “Bad Boss” cases to illustrate the continuing relevance of employee protection laws for our newsletter’s audience, which includes attorneys and former TELG clients.
This Bad Boss Priest Cast the First Stone — at an Eighth Grade Teacher
Single mom Kourtney Liggins had worked for almost four years as an eighth-grade teacher at Transfiguration Elementary School, a Catholic school in Los Angeles, when Father Michael Tang, the school’s pastor, called her to his office.
Fr. Tang said he had heard Ms. Liggins was pregnant, she later told a court; accordingly, he asked her to stop acting as a youth minister because she was, as she said he put it, “morally corrupt.”
“Does it even have a father?” the priest inquired about the unborn child, a girl, according to testimony from Ms. Liggins, who also was Fr. Tang’s parishioner. “I don’t want to see it on this campus. I don’t want to see it at church.”
Hurt and upset, Ms. Liggins dropped much of her religious work but remained as a teacher at Transfiguration. She was approved for a year’s maternity leave upon her daughter’s birth that summer, but was called back early — and at lower pay — after Fr. Tang clashed with her substitute, she testified.
Just a few months after her return, she met again with Fr. Tang and was shocked to hear him claim that Transfiguration parents were now complaining about her. She told the court this was the first time she heard of any criticism — and further, that she came to believe that Fr. Tang had altered employment records and rewarded some of the parents for their complaints.
One week later, Ms. Liggins received a bad year-end review; Fr. Tang said she’d be suspended if she did not sign it, according to court documents. Backed up by a HR official, Ms. Liggins refused. A month later, however, she was told not to return for the next school year.
Michael Tang is our new Bad Boss of the Month.
Ms. Liggins filed a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and Fr. Tang, among others. After a trial in October 2018, an L.A. County jury awarded her almost $3.6 million in compensation, plus a levy of $87,500 to punish Fr. Tang personally for his “outrageous” conduct. In January the judge invalidated part of that verdict, however, and ordered a new trial on damages alone. No one was happy, and the tangled outcome is now on appeal.
An experienced educator, Ms. Liggins had begun subbing at Transfiguration in 2007, not long after her sister, Mechele Yerima, became principal. It was her second stint at the school, which serves a diverse community of modest means; she had worked there from 1998 to 2003 and “really enjoyed” it. In 2008, Ms. Liggins was promoted to teach eighth graders a range of subjects from science to music to spelling. Often called Mrs. Johnson at school because she had children at Transfiguration with that surname from a previous marriage, she said she had no performance issues until her run-in with Fr. Tang.
Fr. Tang, meanwhile, had arrived at Transfiguration in 2010. A diocesan priest who teaches art and art history at nearby Loyola Marymount University, a Catholic institution with a close relationship to Transfiguration, he moved in a very different world than Ms. Liggins. He is a talented watercolorist and equestrian enthusiast who promotes himself as “America’s premier sporting artist”; his flattering horse-and-rider paintings are owned by society figures such as the Bertam Firestones and Jane Forbes Clark, and by tony institutions including The International Museum of the Horse.
Originally a Jesuit, Fr. Tang told a writer that he left that order partly because its vow of poverty conflicted with his wish to ride and show horses. On his Web site he solicits equestrian painting commissions, promising to capture “you and your favorite mount in pigment for posterity.” His About the Artist page features a glamorous studio photo and no hint of his vocation — although he was profiled as “The Holy Horseman” by UnTacked, a glossy supplement to The Chronicle of the Horse, appearing in his priestly collar as the cover model.
As pastor for Transfiguration, Fr. Tang technically did not supervise the teachers except in their religious role. But as a practical matter, according to testimony including his own, he drove many of the school’s staffing decisions.
Ms. Liggins told jurors that her relationship with Fr. Tang was good at first. He seemed to take an interest in her family, sometimes calling one of her daughters out of class to watch over his “babies” — his Jack Russell terriers, a breed that’s highly valued by fox hunters.
But things changed when the priest learned that she was expecting a child with her boyfriend, an L.A. school district administrator named Adrian Magee, according to Ms. Liggins. At trial, Fr. Tang denied that he judged Ms. Liggins for having an out-of-wedlock birth: “If I had that problem … we wouldn’t have a school,” he said, noting about that half the families at Transfiguration, and at least one other teacher, were in a similar situation.
At the same time, he acknowledged in testimony, he did tell Ms. Liggins not to bring her newborn to school — and he said he was bound, as her pastor, to find that her pregnancy violated “the philosophies and teachings of the Catholic church.”
With two other children enrolled at Transfiguration, Ms. Liggins didn’t want to lose her job. She reported Fr. Tang’s seeming bias to an HR official and to the bishop himself, Fr. Tang’s boss. The bishop’s response, according to filings: He asked her to “pray on it.”
When Ms. Liggins returned to school early from maternity leave, she placed her baby in daycare across the street so that she could leave during lunch to nurse her. But around the same time, she testified, Transfiguration vice principal Evelyn Rickenbacker started scheduling teacher meetings at lunchtime, causing Ms. Liggins to miss out on important updates. Ms. Rickenbacker told her, she said, to “decide which is more important” — the meetings or the nursing.
The vice principal “would always say … ‘I’m sorry things aren’t to your liking, Mrs. Obama,” Ms. Liggins recalled in a deposition.
Both women are African American.
Ms. Liggins began to feel frozen out. At mass on Sundays, she testified, Fr. Tang declined to shake her hand as he did with other parishioners after the service. To make matters worse, her sister Ms. Yerima decided to resign as principal. Ms. Rickenbacker, herself a Transfiguration alumna, was named to fill the slot, and she and Fr. Tang started talking about refreshing the staff, according to Ms. Liggins’ testimony.
Tensions rose quickly. At a meeting that Ms. Liggins believed would be about financial aid for her children, Fr. Tang and Ms. Rickenbacker informed her of parent complaints about “frequent lateness, absences and cell phone use in the class,” according to testimony — but offered no documentation. Blindsided, Ms. Liggins sensed a set-up and flagged the issue to HR immediately.
Five days later, Mr. Magee — Ms. Liggins’ partner and father of their infant daughter — showed up without notice at Ms. Rickenbacker’s classroom to observe Ms. Liggins’ son Jonathan. Ms. Rickenbacker felt intimidated by Mr. Magee’s “glaring,” she told jurors, although she conceded that class observation by family members was an acceptable practice.
Then Mr. Magee accompanied Ms. Liggins to a meeting that Fr. Tang and Ms. Rickenbacker had scheduled to discuss Ms. Liggins’ work performance — and matters really escalated. According to a court filing by Ms. Liggins, the priest told Mr. Magee he couldn’t join the meeting, called him “an uppity-a** Creole n***er,” and banned him from the Transfiguration campus, an incident that jurors didn’t hear about.
Fr. Tang, who is of Chinese descent, then convened some of the school’s administrators and, according to meeting minutes later filed in the case, told them that he was aware of “all the comments and negativity” and “false rumors and petitions” circulating about him, and of “attempts to sabotage his work here.” Any staff member who was insubordinate, he warned — even to the extent of “eye-rolling” — could face termination: As pastor, he said, he had “ultimate authority and power” over the school, including firing power, according to the document.
Indeed, Fr. Tang had been exercising that power lately, jurors heard. Besides directing Ms. Yerima to fire Ms. Liggins’ long-term substitute for “badmouthing” him, he also let go a vice principal in part for “insubordinate behavior,” he said at trial. Another ex-Transfiguration official testified that he was fired after complaining that Fr. Tang had shown up to school meetings — including a PTA meeting — smelling of alcohol and acting “discombobulated.”
Ms. Liggins’ exit from the school took several weeks to play out. She withdrew her kids before the end of the school year, she testified, because they were being “targeted.” Fr. Tang finally provided letters to bolster his claims of parent complaints — but, he admitted in court, they were written after his initial meeting with Ms. Liggins, whose attorney intimated in court that the letters had been obtained in exchange for the priest’s help with debt and scholarships.
In the end, Ms. Liggins learned that her contract would not be renewed via a letter that she received at her parents’ home — and opened in front of her father, she testified, feeling “embarrassed” and “afraid.”
“It was devastating,” she told jurors.
Unable to find a full-time teaching job again, she had to switch all but one of her kids to public school. For a while she continued to attend Fr. Tang’s mass at Transfiguration Church, but it soon became “unbearable” and she found another parish.
“There were times” when she considered suicide, she testified.
The jurors ultimately found for Ms. Liggins on two claims — wrongful termination by the archdiocese and intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) by the archdiocese and by Fr. Tang. They awarded her more than $275,000 in economic damages, a further $3.3 million for pain and suffering, and $87,500 as punishment for Fr. Tang specifically.
According to the trial judge, however, Ms. Liggins technically wasn’t terminated: Her contract simply wasn’t renewed for another term, which can’t support a wrongful termination judgment in California, according to his order. Since the jury’s awards were lump sums, not allocated between claims, the judge ordered a new trial on the amount Ms. Liggins should receive for the IIED claim alone. Both sides appealed and the matter likely won’t be resolved until next year.
» Read about Fr. Tang’s horsy lifestyle via the profile in UnTacked, “The Intertwined Passions of Father Michael Tang”
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Liggins v. Archdiocese of Los Angeles. 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. Liggins is represented in this case by Shegerian & Associates.