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Death by 1,000 (Accommodation) Cuts

This Bad Boss Failed to Act While a Disabled Employee Lost the Simple Tools Needed to Do His Job

After a 2014 medical accident left him a paraplegic, Daniel Callahan struggled hard to regain limited use of his legs.

When he succeeded, he needed just a few more things to resume his long career as a concierge at the San Francisco Marriott Marquis, he testified later in court: A decent desk and chair, for instance; a good padded mat so he could stand without much pain; and a break room that wasn’t too far from his work station.

And at first, Callahan told a San Francisco jury, he got most of those things.

But then the hotel started chipping away at his accommodations — and his manager, Scott Garlow, was “contemptuous” in the face of the concierge’s rising dismay, Callahan said in a legal complaint.

Manager Garlow told Callahan that he couldn’t stow his mobility scooter by the concierge desk, for example, forcing him to walk farther — and Garlow agreed that Callahan should stop eating lunch in a nearby storage room when HR accused the longtime employee of being a “security risk” for guests’ luggage, according to testimony.

Meanwhile Garlow gossiped publicly with staff about Callahan’s bodily functions, the concierge told jurors, and he made light of Callahan’s difficulty navigating his workspace.

Finally, during renovations, the hotel replaced Callahan’s desk and chair. No one consulted the disabled concierge and the new furniture made sitting far harder for Callahan, who by then had been diagnosed with a heart condition, jurors heard.

In September 2019, with the ill-suited desk still in place despite repeated pleas to Garlow and others, Callahan’s doctor advised him to stop working at the Marriott — and in a later deposition, testified that the hotel’s lack of accommodation had likely contributed to the concierge’s health crisis.

Scott Garlow is our Bad Boss of the Month.

After quitting, Callahan filed a complaint against the Marriott Marquis, claiming discrimination and a failure to follow the proper accommodation process. A state jury found in his favor last fall and awarded Callahan an eye-opening $20 million in damages; since then the case docket has shown no further litigation.

Manager Garlow never explained himself at the trial; Marriott declined to call him as a witness, and Callahan’s attorneys couldn’t locate him to demand his testimony.

Callahan’s hospitality career had launched along with the Marriott Marquis itself: As a fresh arrival in San Francisco, he had recently enrolled in a hotel management program when a Marriott representative showed up in 1989 to recruit staff for the newly constructed building on Mission Street, which boasted high-end amenities and sweeping views.

Callahan was hired as a banquet server even before the hotel’s official opening. Soon afterward, a spot opened up in the concierge department, which helps guests with advice, local reservations, and special arrangements.

“Right from the get-go, it was the perfect fit for me,” Callahan told the jury. “I felt like I had found a home.”

Callahan loved interacting with guests, he testified: He even spent his personal days helping Marriott to invent new services that could be offered to VIPs, which allowed the concierge department to be profitable for the first time.

He was nominated for multiple awards; served as a board member of the Northern California Concierge Association; and was accepted into Les Clefs d’Or — an international association he told the court is “the pinnacle of being a concierge.”

Throughout all of this, however, Callahan suffered from chronic back pain. He had surgery and later began to get regular epidural injections to manage the problem — until early 2014, when an injection went wrong and injured his spinal cord, paralyzing him from the waist down.

“I woke up as a paraplegic,” Callahan told the jury.

Callahan immediately set a goal, he testified: To regain enough mobility to return to work at the Marriott within a year. His doctors were skeptical, he said, and his young daughter — whom he used to take skiing and boogie boarding — compared him to a monster as he struggled to walk using leg braces and a walker.

The injury’s impact, he testified, had changed his life “like throwing a light switch, and my daughter was scared. I was scared. And that’s another reason it was just so important for me … not to give up. [T]hat’s something I wanted to make sure I showed to her.”

Callahan drew on his grit and returned to the hotel on schedule in January 2015. He doesn’t recall much about his first day back, but he strongly remembers arriving home in his Marriott uniform, just like he used to, and being greeted by his smiling daughter.

“She now had some hope,” he told jurors. “And so did I.”

Callahan had returned to the Marriott with a doctor’s note that explained his needs, most of which were easily met, he said in court.

The existing concierge desk and floor mat were adequate, he testified, and he could eat his lunch in a room behind the nearby bell desk. Though he had previously stood up to interact with most guests, he now needed to sit down more. It was painful and difficult to walk for any distance, and he needed a cane to do so.

Callahan’s electric mobility scooter, which allowed him to travel farther and faster, was a sticking point. Although there was a suitable space available beside the concierge desk, he testified, boss Garlow insisted that the scooter be parked in a storage area — “and that really defeat[ed] the purpose.” He opted not to use it.

Further problems arose. The room behind the bell desk, where Callahan had started eating his lunch, was often locked. At other times, there wasn’t any chair available in the room, or the chairs were stored away on shelves. Callahan wanted Marriott to designate at least one seat there for disabled employees — like Starbucks does for customers, he noted — and he would have liked a key to the room, but Garlow never offered a permanent solution, he testified.

Frustrated, Callahan suggested using a room that was farther away, a storage area for luggage that the bellmen also used for breaks. Walking to that room felt like “a marathon,” Callahan told the jury, but at least there was usually a chair available. Garlow initially agreed but later backtracked, Callahan testified, seeming to agree with an HR official who said that the concierge — by then a Marriott employee for more than a quarter-century — shouldn’t be trusted with guests’ belongings.

Callahan rebelled, continuing to use the room, and the dispute caused a string of tense meetings with Garlow and HR.

Other necessities started to disappear. The large padded mat at the concierge desk was thrown out, forcing Callahan to stand painfully on hard tile for months, despite complaints to Garlow, jurors heard. When some smaller mats finally arrived, Callahan lacked the core strength to wheel his chair across them, and the chair itself often sat at an angle. Callahan ended up standing more, and had to ice his feet at home afterward, he testified.

When Callahan complained to Garlow that the mats’ edges were curling — yet another hazard — the manager forcibly shoved the concierge onto a mat and laughed, Callahan told the court. “The mats are not that terrible,” Garlow told his disabled employee, according to Callahan.

There were other humiliations. A coworker laughed mockingly at Callahan when the concierge nearly lost his balance; Garlow was standing nearby and said nothing, Callahan testified. On a separate occasion, Garlow and an HR employee speculated aloud, within earshot of Callahan, about the concierge’s ability to urinate and have bowel movements, according to Callahan.

By Thanksgiving 2017, Callahan was so stressed that he spent most of the holiday in bed, unable to sleep and struggling to breathe easily. A few days later he went to the emergency room and was admitted to hospital.

“I learned that I was in the first stages of heart failure,” he testified.

Callahan took a leave of absence, but things were no better when he returned. Within a few months, the hotel began renovations — and the concierge station was temporarily moved up a floor, far from the room Callahan had previously used for lunch.

A break room on the temporary floor was very difficult to reach, Callahan testified, but Garlow’s only suggestion was to use the staff cafeteria three floors away. Callahan emailed both HR and hotel management multiple times, according to court documents, to no avail.

Even after it was finished, the renovation was a disaster for Callahan. A new concierge desk was so wide that he couldn’t reach across it, he testified — and it didn’t offer enough leg space for him to sit properly. The new chair, meanwhile, angled him forward, putting more weight on his weakened legs.

“Working at that workstation was like torture,” Callahan said at trial. “My coworker at one point said to me, ‘My back is really jacked up from this desk. I can’t imagine what’s happening to yours.'”

Callahan complained repeatedly to Garlow and emailed HR to ask about his needs; in response, he told jurors, HR replied that “no special accommodations” had been made for the disabled concierge — either at the desk or anywhere else in the hotel.

In September 2019, Callahan’s doctor told him he had to quit. The concierge’s work situation was aggravating his heart condition, the doctor later testified.

Reluctantly, Callahan complied. “I loved this job,” he said at trial. “The only time I felt like I wasn’t disabled was when I was working with guests.”

In its verdict, the jury found that at least one Marriott executive was “guilty of malice, fraud, or oppression” in the hotel’s illegal treatment of Callahan. Jurors awarded the concierge $5 million for his pain and suffering, past and future — and added a further $15 million to punish Marriott.

Callahan’s heart condition had worsened in the meantime, leading to surgery and an implanted device. Shortly before the trial, he told jurors, his doctors had informed him that he needed “another heart.”

He was just about to get on a transplant list, he testified.

» Read Callahan’s complaint

» Read an excerpt of Callahan’s trial testimony

The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Callahan v. Marriott Marquis Hotel. 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.

Daniel Callahan was represented by the Law Offices of Susan Rubenstein; the deRubertis Law Firm; and the Law Offices of Patrice L. Goldman.

Out With the Old

These Bad Bosses Passed Over a Star Employee in Favor of “Young and Perky”

Kelly O’Kell was in her mid-fifties when her new boss, Clinton Wertz, stood in her office and told her he’d never hire a woman her age, according to court testimony.

Along with his deputy, Clyde Lay, Wertz pushed managers to favor “young and new” people at the Ephrata, Wash. field office of the U.S. Department of the Interior, according to a complaint filed later by O’Kell — a pattern of favoritism that was confirmed by the judge in the case.

When O’Kell applied for a promotion for which she’d been told she was the only viable in-house contender, Wertz passed her over in favor of an outsider who had never worked for the federal government. Wertz’s purported reason, as O’Kell testified she heard via a colleague: The other candidate — a slender, blonde woman under 40 — was “young and perky.”

Wertz and Lay brushed off O’Kell when she asked about the decision, she testified, so she contacted an Equal Employment Opportunity counselor. As soon as her bosses heard about her EEO complaint they began to treat her differently, the judge found: They disciplined O’Kell for how she was expressing her frustration, he said, even as her substantive complaints “fell into a black hole.”

“Clint and Clyde are coming after you,” O’Kell’s direct manager warned her as he meted out punishment that came from above, she testified.

O’Kell’s pushback was framed as creating a hostile work environment, and ultimately she was fired for rudeness, among other offenses. She hasn’t found comparable work since.

Clinton Wertz and Clyde Lay are our Bad Bosses of the Month.

O’Kell filed a lawsuit against the Interior Department, claiming age discrimination and retaliation. A federal judge ruled in her favor after an 11-day bench trial, awarding her almost $1.7 million in damages and ordering the agency to remove all tainted discipline records from O’Kell’s personnel file.

An appeals court later told the judge to adjust his damages calculations; a revised judgment remains pending at this writing.

Government was O’Kell’s second career. Originally a trusts lawyer, she was self-employed before a series of accidents made it impossible to find her own health insurance, she told the judge. In 2008, she took a job with the Interior Department in Wyoming, moved to Oregon in 2011, and arrived in Ephrata in 2014. She worked there as a realty specialist, handling the federal government’s land sales, land purchases, and land access requests.

In 2015, Clinton Wertz was named as the Ephrata office’s field manager — and the atmosphere changed, O’Kell testified. Asked soon afterward by her direct manager, Anthony Ortiz, to help him vet a list of potential hires, she heard about a new directive.

“Tony told us … that Clint told him repeatedly we’re only to hire the young and new,” she testified. “One [person on the list], Tony told me … ‘She’s probably your age,’ so he scratched her off.”

Among the new hires chosen: A younger woman named Sarah Maciel who, when she started work at the Ephrata field office, repeatedly called O’Kell “grandma” despite being asked to stop, O’Kell testified.

Not long after Maciel’s arrival, according to O’Kell, Wertz came into to a room where both women worked and, holding forth, said he’d never hire a woman over 50 “because they can’t carry the workload like a man.” O’Kell was 56 at the time.

Just a few months later, Wertz would select Maciel — who was two grades below O’Kell on the government scale — for an interview panel that helped to evaluate her senior colleague for a promotion, a decision the judge drily called “unusual.”

Maciel’s participation wasn’t the only odd aspect of O’Kell’s promotion denial. Wertz had recently brought aboard Clyde Lay, with whom he’d previously worked, as his deputy. The two men consulted on hiring decisions, according to one witness, and “it always worked out … that the people they were hiring were the young girls, young ladies.”

Nonetheless, both Lay and Wertz told O’Kell that she was “the only person in the office” who was qualified for the new position, according to O’Kell’s complaint. So when O’Kell appeared before the interview panel, she testified, she was shocked that Wertz acted with obvious disinterest.

“He was kicked back in his chair with his foot up on his knee, and he was texting and laughing,” she told the judge. “He occasionally put his phone down when he asked me a question, but then, as soon as he was done with his note, he would pick his phone back up. And he really maybe looked at me twice through the whole interview, maybe three or four times. Not often. It was so minimal. It was so uncomfortable.”

Instead of O’Kell, Wertz chose to hire the other person who interviewed, a slim younger woman with no federal experience. Wertz told Lay to break the news via phone to O’Kell, who was at a training session in Idaho. At first she took the disappointment in stride, but then she went out to dinner at a Red Robin with a group of colleagues including Sarah Maciel — her junior, who had sat on her interview panel — and “asked her if there was anything I could have done different.”

According to O’Kell, Maciel was blunt about Wertz’s rationale: “All things being equal, the other candidate was young and perky and going to bring new energy to the office.”

“I went out behind the restaurant behind a dumpster because I wasn’t going to let them see me cry,” O’Kell told the judge. “And I cried behind the dumpster, and I stayed out there through their whole dinner. I went back in … and my dinner was sitting there, and I couldn’t eat. Sarah started talking about [how] the longer I worked there, the more I’ll understand management.”

Ironically, O’Kell would later receive a “STAR award” that honored her as “an example of knowledge, quality, and extra effort.” Wertz had signed it on May 19, 2016, the very same day O’Kell learned of her non-selection, the court heard.

The following week, O’Kell confronted Wertz and Lay separately but got nowhere. In court, Lay acknowledged that he’d understood O’Kell to be complaining about Wertz’s overt age bias — and that he responded by trying to end the discussion, saying that “I cannot imagine that Clint would ever say anything like that ever.”

“Clint wasn’t hiring all the young women,” Lay explained further to O’Kell, he testified: A female official was doing some of the hiring, too. Lay never reported the discussion to EEO officials, he told the judge, nor to anyone in human resources, nor even to Wertz. Instead, he “handed it off” to O’Kell’s direct manager, Lay’s subordinate, a man whom O’Kell testified was easily intimidated.

O’Kell contacted the agency’s EEO counselor herself. Her complaint was one of dozens made by Ephrata workers during this approximate period, the judge found — including several claims of age bias that were bolstered by quotes such as “we need young blood” and “older workers don’t go with the flow.”

Ephrata leaders learned within hours that O’Kell had filed a complaint, the judge said, and “immediately began to treat her differently.”

O’Kell’s direct boss, Ortiz, suspended her telework privileges and then issued her a letter of reprimand a few weeks later, supposedly for engaging in inappropriate conduct toward Maciel — an accusation that the judge said had credibility issues, and an outcome he found to be retaliatory.

Yet O’Kell gradually realized, she said in court, that Ortiz was just the messenger. “Please, this is not coming from me,” he’d say after returning from meetings with Wertz and Lay, she testified. “Don’t be mad at me.”

After she made a formal complaint of retaliation, Ortiz warned her that she was now firmly on Lay’s “hit list,” according to her complaint.

Long months of tension followed. The judge described this period as “an almost endless dispute.” O’Kell was investigated for supposed infractions, often for the tone of her responses to managers and co-workers, even as she brought more claims and her original complaint languished. Her manager Ortiz — whom she had come to see as a protector — died in an accident, and, even as grief counselors visited the office, she testified, Lay spoke ominously to her in the hallway.

“Now I finally got you where I want you,” she testified that he said.

To escape the Ephrata office, O’Kell applied for other jobs — but the reprimand in her file made it difficult. She asked Lay to remove it, but Lay testified that he replied that he’d do so only if she presented him with her signed acceptance of another job. The agency’s EEO specialist later said that Lay’s condition was “unacceptable” and evidence of retaliation, according to court documents.

A bit later that year, Lay issued O’Kell with a proposed three-day suspension — which was upheld by another manager — and gave O’Kell her first-ever poor performance rating.

In his letter proposing her suspension, Lay said he was disciplining O’Kell for “the continued inappropriate manner in which you choose to voice your [discrimination and retaliation] concerns. I am not prohibiting you from raising concerns. However, there are appropriate processes and forums to do so.”

The judge saw things differently, blaming the government itself for “abdicating [its] responsibilities” toward an employee in anguish. O’Kell’s “behavioral issues at work may have been born[] out of [her department’s] inaction” on her complaints, he found; her managers might have worked with their former star to “figure out and address the root cause of her behavior changes.”

O’Kell did use all the prescribed processes, the judge observed, but she got back nothing but frustration as her complaint went “uninvestigated and uncompleted.” He found her suspension to be rooted in retaliation.

Wertz’s role in the suspension is unclear, meanwhile, and he was about to leave the Ephrata office anyhow: According to Lay’s testimony, higher-ups felt that Wertz “wasn’t doing a good job.”

O’Kell was eventually fired in 2018, about two years after her original promotion denial. By that time the Interior Department still hadn’t issued any findings from its investigation of her first claim of discrimination, way back in 2016 — and it still hadn’t done so by the time the judge issued his findings in 2022.

By contrast, O’Kell’s firing was the result of a whirlwind investigation that started with Lay escorting her out of an employee luncheon to meet with a private investigator. It ended just two months later with a notice of proposed removal that cited multiple instances of O’Kell’s rudeness, unresponsiveness, lack of respect, and other “inappropriate conduct.”

But without the earlier retaliatory discipline, the judge found, O’Kell “would not have been terminated.” And the speedy investigation showed that the Interior Department was “fully capable” of completing an internal probe — it just “chose” not to do so for O’Kell’s allegations.

O’Kell filed her lawsuit about a month after her firing. A single mother of adult children, she had just made the final payment on a daughter’s student loan. She never had a chance, she testified, to start saving for her own retirement.

While waiting for the trial, O’Kell applied for about 100 jobs, she testified. She got just two offers — one of which was rescinded based on the government’s documentation of her termination. The other required a commute that she couldn’t handle for medical reasons.

By the time of the trial, which was delayed for COVID and other reasons, she was still unemployed. Lay, meanwhile, remained at the Ephrata field office.

» Read O’Kell’s complaint

» Read the judge’s findings

The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in O’Kell v. Haaland. 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.

Kelly O’Kell was represented by Riverside NW Law Group.

Leave? Leave!

This Proselytizing Bad Boss Fired His Employee After She Asked Off for the Jewish Holidays

In 2016, attorney Kimberly Edelstein asked for time off to observe some of the most sacred days on the Jewish calendar.

“Holy cow!” exclaimed her Christian boss, Gregory Stephens, according to testimony in a case filed later by Edelstein. “Eight days?!”

Edelstein was terminated shortly afterward by Stephens, an Ohio state judge who was also a Baptist preacher and a door-to-door proselytizer. Stephens believes, he testified, that Jews and other people who don’t accept Jesus as their savior are destined for hell.

At trial, Stephens said that neither Edelstein’s religion nor her leave request (which he granted before firing her) was a factor in her termination. Instead, he told jurors, he was punishing poor work behavior by Edelstein that was largely reported by another employee — the judge’s now-deceased judicial assistant, who Edelstein testified had hissed at her as she gathered her belongings:

“Hey, Jew, get your stuff packed yet?”

The judge didn’t investigate these negative reports about Edelstein before firing her, he testified; he saw no reason to doubt his assistant’s motives.

Gregory Stephens is our latest Bad Boss of the Month.

Edelstein filed a lawsuit against Stephens in federal court, claiming religious discrimination and other wrongdoing. On February 3, 2023, after a nine-day trial at which Edelstein represented herself against her former boss — in part, she testified, because no local attorney wanted to sue a judge — a jury found that Stephens had violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects the religious practice of government employees.

Jurors awarded Edelstein $1.12 million in damages; the case remains in post-trial motions.

Edelstein wasn’t raised Jewish, she testified, but she chose Judaism after taking a college class on world religions. She learned Hebrew and now prays in it; she later married an Orthodox Jewish man and still keeps a kosher house — two complete sets of dishes, for example, one for meat and one for dairy.

At trial, she educated the Cincinnati jury on the basics of her faith, which she described as “a life of ritual.” She evidently felt a need to dispel some offensive stereotypes: Orthodox Jews, she told jurors, “are incredibly generous. They are not at all stingy.”

The first member of her family to get a bachelor’s degree, Edelstein also earned a master’s degree and then — after her plan for a State Department career was derailed by a Clinton-era hiring freeze — a law degree, which she funded with scholarships, loans, and by working as a barista and at a Subway shop.

Around 2007, Edelstein was hired as a staff attorney and magistrate for Judge Patricia Oney of the Butler County Court of Common Pleas in Hamilton, Ohio, a city on the northern outskirts of Cincinnati. Her duties included drafting decisions for Oney; conducting status reports; and hearing certain types of cases, such as stalking protection orders.

Edelstein worked easily with her judge to accommodate the demands of her faith, she testified, including a period each fall during which she had to take off eight workdays, scattered across a few weeks that start with Rosh Hashanah.

By 2014, however, Judge Oney began having medical issues. Edelstein testified that she stepped up to help, handling Oney’s entire civil docket, including jury trials, until the judge’s sudden retirement at the end of 2015. What followed was a revolving cast of visiting judges, while Edelstein “prayed a lot” for a permanent replacement who would keep her on staff.

Finally, in March 2016, Greg Stephens arrived at the court after being appointed as Oney’s replacement by Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

“I was thrilled … that I was going to get a judge,” Edelstein told jurors. “And hopefully — hopefully — I could keep my job.”

Stephens had spent most of his career as a criminal prosecutor. He brought along two of his own staff: Melinda Barger as judicial assistant and Jamie Wilson as bailiff. None of the newcomers had much experience in civil cases, and Stephens opted to keep Edelstein in her role. Edelstein testified that she and the new judge agreed to give each other a three-month notice if things weren’t working out.

At first, the transition was normal. Seeking connection with Barger and Wilson, Edelstein opened up about her religious obligations — talking about the need to deep-clean her house, down to the smallest breadcrumb, in preparation for Passover — but was rattled by a jokey, disrespectful response to her faith.

“It made me uncomfortable,” she testified, “and so I just didn’t talk to them about [my religious practice] anymore. … But other than that, we didn’t have a poor relationship.”

Relations with Stephens seemed solid, too, apart from some gripes about her cluttered office. Edelstein handled much of his civil docket, she told jurors, since he was more familiar with criminal work. At a birthday lunch for bailiff Wilson, the judge complimented Edelstein’s work.

Barely two weeks later, however, she was fired.

Before asking for time off to observe the upcoming Jewish holidays, Edelstein testified, she’d never discussed her religion with Stephens — and she was genuinely shocked by his “yelling” in response. Stephens could be touchy and exacting, she told jurors, once blowing up because a document listed his name with a wrong middle initial, but he was fundamentally “a very quiet person.”

At the time, Edelstein didn’t know the details of Stephen’s Baptist faith and preaching. In court, she put him on the stand to explain it all: His years on the pulpit, his concept of heaven and hell, his door-to-door attempts to engage non-believers, his view of Judaism, his opinion on whether those who don’t follow Jesus are damned or just “lost.”

(Either way, he testified, they end up in hell, possibly cast into a “lake of fire.”)

Did he have any Jewish friends, she asked? Maybe two or three “at best,” he replied, but he didn’t know if they were observant.

Then he corrected himself: “I actually did fail to point out, Jesus himself … was an observant Jew.”

And did he consider Jesus to be a Jewish friend?

“Oh, absolutely.”

Stephens acknowledged that he’d set the gears turning on Edelstein’s termination almost immediately after she requested her leave, but he insisted that the events were unrelated. He fired her on a Monday morning, the second workday after her request, saying only that she didn’t “fit in,” Edelstein testified.

After litigation started, Stephens offered more specific reasons. Based partly on reports from his assistant Barger, who he said “wouldn’t have any reason to misrepresent something like that,” he cited Edelstein’s insubordination, procrastination, rudeness, and conflicts with Barger and other staff — many of which he couldn’t recall in detail, and none of which he flagged, tried to fix, or documented in real time, he conceded in court.

“I found you very disagreeable and difficult to work with,” he told Edelstein in front of the jurors. “You had a very contentious personality [that] I knew was not going to change.”

(Assistant Barger, who had supposedly hissed at Edelstein as she left, died in 2021. Many of her descriptions of Edelstein’s work behavior were contradicted by the testimony of other witnesses, according to court documents — including by bailiff Wilson, who described Barger to jurors as “abrasive” and “nasty.”)

The firing itself had taken place in Edelstein’s office, with Barger “smirking” behind the judge as he delivered the news, Edelstein testified. In shock, Edelstein begged to be allowed resign with three month’s notice, but to no avail: She was told to leave by noon.

The ensuing months and years were very difficult, she testified. Previously her family’s main provider, she now struggled to feed them, falling back on charity from her own religious community.

“They helped me with the food pantry,” she testified. “They helped feed my children. We couldn’t make rent one month — they paid my rent.”

Work was hard to find. According to her lawsuit, Stephens’ colleagues were bad-mouthing her around town. “Within a week, it seemed that the networking possibilities were closed off to me,” she testified.

Without a government job, Edelstein’s student loans no longer were headed for forgiveness. She and her husband, who worked at Wal-Mart, sold off furniture and other belongings. Tensions grew within the family; she developed depression and diabetes; and eventually her husband left her, she testified.

Desperate for money, Edelstein applied for janitorial jobs and even approached the local McDonald’s — she had worked at the fast-food chain during college — only for the manager there to laugh at her, she told jurors.

“He said, ‘You’re a lawyer? … What did you do wrong?‘”

Stung, she considered altering her résumé to delete all of her legal experience, just so she’d be taken more seriously by low-wage employers. Finally, just a few months before the trial, she began working as a sales consultant. She now earns $55,000 a year, she testified, well below her 2016 salary at the Butler County court.

After finding in her favor on February 4, jurors awarded Edelstein $835,000 in back pay, plus a further $250,000 for her emotional and other non-monetary harms. They levied a further $35,000 in punitive damages against Stephens for “conduct which was malicious or in reckless disregard of [Edelstein’s] rights.”

Stephens remains listed as an active judge in Butler County. His former bailiff Jamie Wilson testified at trial that she finally quit her position last year after working with him for more than two decades, telling jurors that she had tired of behavior that, according to her, Stephens himself acknowledged as “toxic” and “destructive.”

» Read Edelstein’s amended complaint
» Read Stephens’ testimony about his beliefs


The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Edelstein v. Stephens. We select “Bad Boss” cases to illustrate the continuing relevance of employee protection laws for our newsletter’s audience, which includes attorneys and former TELG clients.

Kimberly Edelstein represented herself in the case.

Dental Pain

This Bad Boss Created a Hostile Workplace that Triggered a Mother’s Protective Instincts

At first, Nexamije Qorrolli thought that her old employer would be a good place for her daughter to start a career as a dental hygienist.

Instead, Fortesa Qorrolli, barely out of her teens, landed in a highly sexualized atmosphere at Metropolitan Dental Associates in Manhattan, N.Y., according to a lawsuit filed by the daughter — even as her mother, who had previously worked at a different MDA location, rejoined the practice and tried to shield her daughter from harassment.

Mother and daughter, who relied on their jobs to support their family of political refugees, testified that MDA’s office on Broadway was overseen by Mario Orantes, whom they labelled in court as a predator and “animal.” According to the daughter’s complaint, Mr. Orantes would pressure female MDA employees to accept his advances, taking them into vacant examination rooms and rewarding those who surrendered while penalizing anyone who refused.

At trial, Mr. Orantes denied any harassment of his staff. The judge directed jurors to focus narrowly on evidence of the office manager’s behavior toward the younger Ms. Qorrolli, who recounted a number of incidents, including a time when Mr. Orantes grabbed her in an elevator and commented approvingly on her body’s firmness.

The elder Ms. Qorrolli, meanwhile, had decided to shadow her daughter whenever Mr. Orantes pulled her aside, hovering nearby to the irritation of Mr. Orantes, who called her “like Hitler” for her policing, according to testimony.

Both Qorrollis finally quit the dental practice after six years of pressure and gaslighting, according to their testimony. By the end, daughter Fortesa was still fending off Mr. Orantes but had spiraled into depression, panic attacks, and suicidal thoughts, jurors heard.

Mario Orantes is our Bad Boss of the Month.

Two separate federal juries found MDA liable to Fortesa Qorrolli for allowing a hostile work environment. The first panel awarded her about $2.6 million on three claims, but in December 2022 the judge ordered a retrial because, in her view, jurors had improperly punished MDA after hearing numerous allegations about Mr. Orantes that they weren’t supposed to assess for their truth.

At the second trial, in February 2023, a jury again found in favor of Ms. Qorrolli, on a single claim. This time the judge controlled evidence more tightly, and jurors awarded only nominal damages.

Last month the judge declined to order a third trial, which Ms. Qorrolli had requested to reconsider the damages award. The second jury was entitled to find the young plaintiff’s testimony “overwrought,” the judge wrote, and to limit damages accordingly.

Ms. Qorrolli is appealing both outcomes, asking for a reinstatement of the original $2.6 million verdict.
The Qorrolli family arrived in the United States from Albania in 1996 with no money, a single suitcase, and three young children, mother Nexamije testified in court. At that time she was a newly qualified dentist fleeing political unrest; Fortesa, her oldest, was just six.

After taking some U.S. exams, Nexamije became a dental assistant and was hired at MDA’s Brooklyn office, originally working at $7 an hour for dentist and MDA owner Paul Cohen. Subsequently she worked for other dentists and attended community college in the Bronx alongside her daughter, who was following in her footsteps. The women qualified as dental hygienists within a year of each other. Nexamije already had a job in Brooklyn, but she pointed Fortesa back to Dr. Cohen, her first U.S. employer.

“I told her, if Dr. Cohen will ask you, you can let him know that you are my daughter,” the mother testified. “Dr. Cohen hired her [on the] spot.”

Fortesa was assigned to a different MDA office, however, in downtown Manhattan, in the periodontal department. She had just turned 20. Soon afterward, her mother joined her: Having reconnected via Fortesa, Dr. Cohen “begged [Nexamije] to quit her job” and return to MDA, the daughter testified.

Both women thrived at first, and their paychecks became crucial to the Qorrolli family, which had just bought a house and had two younger children to support and, later, put through college. “My dad was working,” the daughter told jurors, “but he wasn’t making enough to pay for mortgage and bills. Everything depended on me and my mom.”

They soon attracted the attention of Mr. Orantes, who had started working for MDA at 17 years old, back in the 1980s, and had risen to become Dr. Cohen’s “right arm” after earning “an extreme amount of trust” as an administrator, according to the dentist’s own testimony.

Mr. Orantes was known within the office as a harasser, the younger Ms. Qorrolli told jurors. Several other employees told her that “Mario has sex with anyone and everyone, whoever he lays his eyes on,” she testified. “And if you don’t give in to his sexual desires, then he will make your life a living hell.”

According to Ms. Qorrolli’s complaint and her testimony, Mr. Orantes gave extra pay, easier work, and even free dental treatments to women who “acquiesced” — allegations that Mr. Orantes denied. Ms. Qorrolli testified that she often witnessed him pulling a particular hygienist into a room for about 20 minutes, after which the hygienist would emerge with smeared lipstick. At one point, she told jurors, she opened the lunch room door to find Mr. Orantes and the hygienist “chest to chest,” the woman’s clothing askew.

Toward both Qorrollis, mother and daughter, Mr. Orantes showed a mix of hostility and frustration, the women testified, frequently complaining to Dr. Cohen about the quality of their work but also demanding extra hours — and, when it came to Fortesa, showing sexual interest.

Mr. Orantes touched her in unwelcome ways, Fortesa testified, and made suggestive comments to her “a few times a week.” Sometimes, she testified, he would demean and berate her in front of Dr. Cohen only to offer her insinuating comfort afterward.

“He would kiss me on the cheek, he would tell me that he loved me and that everything was going to be OK, that he was on my side,” she told jurors. “I told him to back off many times. And when … he couldn’t go as far as he’s gone with other women he would just storm out … And then I wouldn’t see him for a day or so until he made another incident and called me upstairs and [again] threatened to fire me in front of Dr. Cohen.”

“Women need someone to fear with authority in their life,” Mr. Orantes told her another time, according to her complaint.

Mother Nexamije, meanwhile, was trying to keep Mr. Orantes away from her daughter. On one occasion, she testified, “I saw Mario putting hands on Tesa, … pulling her inside the room, closing the door. … I was afraid … When I went to open the door and saw him very close to Tesa, Mario slammed the door on me … He hated me because I was trying to protect her.”

In testimony, Mr. Orantes claimed that all his one-on-one interactions with Fortesa Qorrolli were professional, and that Dr. Cohen was often present on speakerphone.

The Qorrollis’ appeals to Dr. Cohen went nowhere, according to court documents, as the MDA owner stood squarely behind his longtime manager — and indeed, denied at trial that Fortesa Qorrolli had ever complained about sexual behavior by Mr. Orantes. The Qorrollis said she finally did, in early 2015; in a deposition that wasn’t allowed into evidence, a fellow employee bolstered their claim.

In another disputed piece of evidence, an anonymous fax arrived at the MDA offices later in 2015 accusing Mr. Orantes of targeting multiple young women employees — and of other wrongdoing besides. Jurors saw this fax during the first trial, but the judge later called that a mistake and excluded the document from the second trial, although she allowed Ms. Qorrolli’s lawyer to describe its general contents.

Dr. Cohen, to whom the fax was addressed, testified that he had investigated the allegations and found them to be untrue.

At trial, Fortesa Qorrolli said she felt “humiliated” by Dr. Cohen’s dismissal of her complaints, testifying that he called her “crazy.”

“I was in shock because I thought he actually cared,” she told jurors. “I trusted him, but he didn’t do anything about it.”

Instead, the cycle of blame and harassment simply continued, she testified: “I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to end my life. The pain was really unbearable.”

At trial, Fortesa’s mother said she was “heartbroken” by the change she saw in her daughter at MDA. The younger Ms. Qorrolli used to be “the light of the family,” according to testimony, but after a few years at MDA, she became withdrawn and prone to anger, ultimately seeking psychological help. Among other things, Fortesa reflexively rubbed at her nose so often that she perforated the cartilage and caused lasting breathing problems, jurors heard.
“I lost my Tesa,” Nexamije told them. “I miss … how she used to be before.”

Finally, in May 2016, Fortesa Qorrolli texted Dr. Cohen and told him that neither woman could work at MDA any longer. “It was either me leaving or completely losing myself there,” she testified. “Even now … I never drive [near the MDA office] because those panic attacks just start kicking in.”

A few months later she filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In 2018, she was cleared to file her federal lawsuit.

After the favorable first trial verdict, U.S. District Court Judge Denise Cote ruled that jurors had reached a valid verdict on liability, but that the damages they awarded — $575,000 in compensation and a further $2 million as punishment — were disproportionate to the facts of the case, and also to benchmarks and awards in comparable cases, indicating a problem that should be solved by a retrial.

The liability finding at the second trial was similarly valid, the judge ruled, but she found no legal basis for vacating the token damages award — a symbolic $1 — as “a miscarriage of justice.”

“[T]he jury may have found that much of [Fortesa] Qorrolli’s highly emotional testimony was incredible or irrelevant to the charges of sexual harassment,” wrote Judge Cote. “Alternatively, the jury could have reasonably concluded that any compensatory damages award would have been purely speculative.”

The case is now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

At least as of late 2022, Mr. Orantes continued to work for MDA, according to testimony. Both the Qorrollis, mother and daughter, found new jobs after their departure from the practice. Last year, Fortesa Qorrolli gave birth to a daughter of her own, Sierra.


» Read Ms. Qorrolli’s complaint
» Read an excerpt of Nexamije Qorrolli’s testimony

The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Qorrolli v. Metropolitan Dental Associates, D.D.S. — 225 Broadway, P.C. We select “Bad Boss” cases to illustrate the continuing relevance of employee protection laws for our newsletter’s audience, which includes attorneys and former TELG clients.

Fortesa Qorrolli was represented by Derek Smith Law Group, PLLC in New York.

Polished Off

This Bad Boss Bonded with a Sales Star Over Mani-Pedis — But Was It All a Veneer?

At first, Jennifer Harris’ boss at FedEx Corporate Services seemed an ally: The two women swapped tales of their families, hung out at team dinners, and even hit the salon together for manicures and pedicures.

But then Michelle Lamb, the new director of FedEx’s “Longhorn” region in southern Texas, suggested that Ms. Harris — a driven sales manager who had broken college records as a relay sprinter — should consider taking a voluntary demotion because she wasn’t an adequate leader, according to a lawsuit.

As a top performer who had recently helped her boss to win a sales award, Ms. Harris felt “blindsided” by Ms. Lamb, she testified at trial. The only notable difference between her and her peers, as far as she could see, was her skin color: She was the only Black sales manager on the team. Ms. Lamb is white.

Ms. Harris declined to step down and instead asked FedEx to investigate possible bias. Not long after, she started getting discipline from Ms. Lamb — the first-ever demerits of her career, according to testimony.

After raising more concerns, this time about possible retaliation, Ms. Harris was put on a performance improvement plan (PIP) that required her to outperform some white peers who weren’t on PIPs themselves.

Finally, a month after Ms. Harris filed a third internal complaint, her former manicure buddy fired her.

Michelle Lamb is our latest Bad Boss of the Month.

Ms. Harris filed suit against FedEx in federal court, claiming race discrimination and retaliation. In October 2022, after a week-long trial, a jury in Houston found FedEx liable for retaliation and awarded her a whopping $366 million — an amount that may have been the largest-ever such award. FedEx appealed the outcome in February 2023.

By the time Ms. Harris was fired, she had been working for FedEx’s corporate sales organization for more than 12 years. According to testimony at trial, her early days at the company in Irving, Tex., in her second real job out of college, were life-changing.

Both of her parents were educators, Ms. Harris said, so she didn’t have much experience in the corporate world. Two mentors at FedEx took her in hand, teaching her how to remake her image so that she could advance more easily — dressing more sedately, toning down her “rather loud” persona.

“These two ladies saw potential in me, and had the courage to pull me to the side,” she told jurors. “They helped me identify that if I wanted to be able to grow with the company, I have to actually present myself as such — even the simplest things, [like] getting a watch, pearls … Just kind of restructuring.”

Before long Ms. Harris was thriving. At trial, a former co-worker called her “an immensely hard worker” who was so dedicated to FedEx — and even to its favored causes, such as Habitat for Humanity — that she “bled purple,” the shipping giant’s signature color.

Over her tenure, according to testimony, Ms. Harris was promoted six times and was named twice to the President’s Club, an honor reserved for stellar performers who then get to mingle with top execs on a luxury trip. Many FedEx salespeople go their entire careers without even one such award, jurors heard.

Along the way, Ms. Harris was selected for a FedEx leadership program and became a manager. In mid-2017, she was chosen to lead a $60 million district based in Houston, just as Ms. Lamb was tapped to head the parent region. Both women worked in the same building, on the same floor — and Ms. Harris believed she found had a new mentor and role model.

“I was excited to [be] able to learn from someone who was recently promoted into the director role, which I aspired to be,” she told jurors.

The early days were good; this was when they went for manicures together. Ms. Harris’ team initially exceeded their goals, along with several other teams, and helped Ms. Lamb to earn a coveted President’s Club honor.

In fiscal 2019, however, performance was rough across the entire company. Under pressure, the women’s relationship started to fray. Ms. Harris asked for weekly coaching meetings, hoping to tap into her boss’s experience, but was frustrated by a lack of concrete advice, she testified.

Then, in March 2019, came Ms. Lamb’s unexpected suggestion that Ms. Harris should think about dropping her management role, purportedly because of failings as a team coach — and also because her “passion for engaging with customers” might make her happier in a low-ranking role. All of a sudden, Ms. Harris testified, she reevaluated their past interactions and saw patterns she didn’t like, especially in comparison to Ms. Lamb’s treatment of white managers.

Ms. Harris testified, for instance, that Ms. Lamb had previously accused her of not participating in company incentive programs as other managers did — but cited data from before Ms. Harris was even in her position. Ms. Lamb also set unfair hurdles for Ms. Harris’ group by removing a big customer from the district without adjusting sales goals, she said.

Besides, Ms. Harris told jurors, her subordinates gave her high scores as a manager and coach in FedEx’s official surveys. “Statistics demonstrated that I was good at that job,” she testified.

“You’re supposed to be developed by your leader,” Ms. Harris said in court. “That was my goal [in] asking for additional one-on-ones. What I didn’t want is to be harassed in those meetings … There was never any leadership on Michelle Lamb’s part. It was always a beat-down. … All of those things where it’s clear that data demonstrates I am not the lowest, but … she’s belittling me, comparing me to my white peers.”

At trial, Ms. Lamb denied that she had ever treated Ms. Harris differently based on her race.

“It’s disgusting to be referred to as a racist,” she told jurors. “I am not a racist, nor do I associate with people who are.”

FedEx investigated Ms. Harris’ claims of discrimination and didn’t take any action against Ms. Lamb. Likewise at trial, the jury didn’t find enough evidence to prove discrimination.

What happened next, however, would ultimately lead to the nine-figure verdict.

Shortly after the discrimination investigation closed, and barely a year after Ms. Harris’ second President’s Award, Ms. Lamb hit her with a letter of counseling for “unacceptable performance” and a PIP, according to testimony.

Ms. Harris and her team weren’t meeting some goals, according to documents shown in court, but they also were performing better than some other teams under Ms. Lamb — and anyhow, high performers often lagged after an exceptional year, jurors heard.

Asked to explain at trial why Ms. Harris was singled out when several white peers had similar or worse team records, Ms. Lamb cited “leadership deficiencies.” Among the examples she discussed: When excluded by Ms. Lamb from a FedEx training program to “cut costs,” Ms. Harris had paid her own way to attend the session on a vacation day.

“Why aren’t you praising her for that?” asked Ms. Harris’ attorney. Ms. Lamb replied that she was “disappointed that [Ms. Harris] didn’t follow instructions.”

“You have to be capable of leading a team,” she testified, “and you have to be capable of being led. … Jennifer just lacked that ability.”

There were other disputes: Whether Ms. Lamb had reduced the revenue available to Ms. Harris by removing a member from her team; whether Ms. Lamb had shunted a big potential customer away from Ms. Harris. Amid this discord, the former sales star filed another internal complaint, alleging that Ms. Lamb was punishing her for the original discrimination claim.

Just days after the second FedEx probe ended — again to no effect — Ms. Lamb issued a letter of warning to Ms. Harris and put her on another PIP, according to testimony. The new plan required Ms. Harris to deliver a performance equal to the average of her peers, which meant outperforming some district managers who weren’t on PIPs themselves.

The conflict took a toll on Ms. Harris. According to testimony, the former athlete gained weight, developed anxiety, and had trouble sleeping due to “continuous dry heaving” that required medication and a procedure to address a developing hernia.

She filed a final internal complaint in December 2019 and was fired by Ms. Lamb the following month, ending an almost-13-year career at FedEx. Based on documents shown in court, her performance had exceeded several of her peers through much of the contested period.

“I never thought I would ever not work for FedEx,” Ms. Harris told the jury, describing her trauma upon leaving. Even today, she testified, she needs to look away whenever she sees a FedEx truck.

At trial, Ms. Harris’ pastor described her as “emotionally destroyed” by the firing. He saw her break down in tears several times, he said, and described holding her as she sobbed publicly at a birthday celebration in a restaurant.

“I am still worried about her mental state,” he testified.

A unanimous jury found that FedEx retaliated against Ms. Harris because of her claims of discrimination, and that the company didn’t treat her internal complaints in good faith. They awarded her more than $1 million for past and future emotional damage — and because they found FedEx’s behavior in the case to be “reprehensible,” they added a huge $365 million in punitive damages.

The number may have been inspired by Ms. Harris’ attorney, who suggested during his closing argument that punitive damages should send a message based on the overall value of FedEx Corporate Services: The jury awarded Ms. Harris about half the worth of the FedEx unit.

Ms. Lamb still works for FedEx, meanwhile, having been moved into a new position with “a larger [revenue] responsibility” than when she managed Ms. Harris, she testified.


» Read Ms. Harris’ second amended complaint

» Watch a news segment of Ms. Harris speaking with WFAA-TV


The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Harris v. FedEx Corporate Services, Inc. We select “Bad Boss” cases to illustrate the continuing relevance of employee protection laws for our newsletter’s audience, which includes attorneys and former TELG clients.

Ms. Harris was represented by The Sanford Firm in Dallas.

Office Politics

This Bad Boss Punished a Career Prosecutor for Following Her Principles

Public prosecutors are hired to exercise unclouded legal judgment about whom to charge with a crime.

But Marlea Dell’Anno was fired for exercising such judgment, a jury found.

As a top prosecutor for the city of San Diego, Ms. Dell’Anno had enjoyed a large corner office, oversaw about 160 attorneys and staff, and reported directly to City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, a combative local politician who used his elected post to draw media attention and settle scores, according to a lawsuit.

In court filings, Ms. Dell’Anno said she ran afoul of Mr. Goldsmith by declining to prosecute flimsy cases that her boss was pushing for mostly political reasons — a battery charge against a troubled homeless man who spat at a cop, for instance.

An adviser to Mr. Goldsmith told Ms. Dell’Anno that she’d find more favor if she agreed to “get [her] hands dirty,” according to testimony. Instead, she refused more dubious requests from her boss. In response, Mr. Goldsmith stripped Ms. Dell’Anno of her staff and responsibilities and assigned her to a newly created position for “homeless related issues,” moving her office to a “filthy” room that had previously been used for storage, according to court filings.

Then, after Ms. Dell’Anno filed a complaint, Mr. Goldsmith quickly fired her — accusing her of dropping the ball on domestic violence reports. “There is absolutely no excuse” for such legal failures, Mr. Goldsmith declared to the media, which portrayed the firing as a valid punishment for Ms. Dell’Anno having “bungled” sensitive cases.

A jury ultimately found the firing to be illegal. In the meantime, however, a formerly rising star’s career lay in tatters.

Jan Goldsmith is our latest Bad Boss of the Month.

Ms. Dell’Anno sued the City of San Diego for retaliation, and earlier this year a California jury awarded her $3.9 million in damages. The judge later tacked on $1.7 million in attorney fees and costs. The city is appealing the verdict .

Being a prosecutor was Ms. Dell’Anno’s “lifelong dream,” according to court filings. After starting out as a public defender in Tulare County, in California’s Central Valley, she became a deputy district attorney for neighboring Fresno County, where she coordinated a program to manage sex offenders .

In 2009, Ms. Dell’Anno moved south to San Diego to become a deputy city attorney under Mr. Goldsmith. She was tapped to run the domestic violence unit, where she notched a 95% conviction rate. By mid-2012, she was heading the entire criminal division , according to court documents.

“My whole identity was being a prosecutor,” Ms. Dell’Anno testified. “I loved everything about being a prosecutor, and I loved my division.”

As the elected city attorney, meanwhile, Mr. Goldsmith was a veteran politician. A Republican, he had served as mayor of Poway, a small city north of San Diego, and then for three terms in the California state assembly. After an unsuccessful run for state treasurer, he served as a judge for almost a decade before being elected as San Diego’s top prosecutor of misdemeanors. (The San Diego County district attorney handles felonies, which are graver crimes.)

Court documents depict Ms. Dell’Anno’s early relationship with Mr. Goldsmith as respectful. In 2013, however, Ms. Dell’Anno attended a city council meeting and publicly answered questions about her division’s budget — too honestly for Mr. Goldsmith’s taste, according to her testimony.

In her complaint, Ms. Dell’Anno described the city attorney chewing her out in front of his entire management team and forbidding her from speaking with council members. The relationship never recovered.

The following year, an elderly homeless man was arrested while he was having a mental crisis. According to court documents, he spat on a police officer. One of Ms. Dell’Anno’s attorneys decided not to file battery charges, but the spat-upon officer appealed to Mr. Goldsmith, who was known as a vocal supporter of the police. Mr. Goldsmith, in turn, asked Ms. Dell’Anno to take a closer look .

Ms. Dell’Anno concluded that the incident — which became known as the “spit battery case” — couldn’t ethically be prosecuted. She wrote a memo to her boss explaining why, but Mr. Goldsmith disagreed and declared that he’d try the case himself, according to court documents, despite never having played such a role before.

Ms. Dell’Anno ended up winning the dispute when San Diego’s police chief told Mr. Goldsmith that her department had no intention of arresting the elderly man.

Hoping to mend fences, Ms. Dell’Anno sought advice around this time from Gerry Braun, a former journalist who was hired by Mr. Goldsmith to manage public relations — and who was known around the office as the “Jan whisperer,” according to filings.

Mr. Braun’s advice cut straight to the point: Mr. Goldsmith “wants you to get your hands dirty,” he advised, according to Ms. Dell’Anno’s complaint. “If you would just get your hands dirty, they would let you in the room.”

A litmus test came quickly. In court documents, Ms. Dell’Anno described a gleeful Mr. Goldsmith calling her into his office with a plan to “get” one of his political enemies — Cory Briggs, a local attorney who ran for the city attorney position.

Mr. Briggs’ supposed criminal offense: Authorizing other people to sign legal pleadings with his electronic signature. When Ms. Dell’Anno told Mr. Goldsmith that she didn’t see it as a prosecutable matter, “she could see the happiness draining from his face, replaced by anger,” according to filings.

In another showdown, Ms. Dell’Anno said in her complaint, Mr. Goldsmith asked her to use a civil subpoena to fish for evidence against a newspaper he wanted to charge criminally; again, she refused. (In filings, Mr. Goldsmith said he had no memory of this.)

Perhaps the last straw was a pair of performance evaluations. Two attorneys got bad ratings from their managers, who worked in turn for Ms. Dell’Anno. The employees sought help directly from Mr. Goldsmith, who asked Ms. Dell’Anno to yank the evaluations from their personnel files, according to testimony — a request she refused, citing state law and the fact that one of the attorneys was the subject of an ongoing internal investigation.

Shortly after, Mr. Goldsmith took action: He shifted Ms. Dell’Anno out of her plum job and into what she described in court documents as a “fict[it]ious position” that included the creation of what Mr. Goldsmith called a “Homeless Court.” She went from supervising 160 people to supervising no one, according to filings, and was assigned a small, dirty office that used to be a storage room .

Ms. Dell’Anno immediately blasted the move as retaliation, calling it “the most professionally and personally devasting event of my twenty-year career” in an email that also informed Mr. Goldsmith that she had hired counsel and filed an employment complaint.

Plus, she noted: “Your actions have had a direct and profound impact on my health and as a result, I have been placed on leave by my doctor.”

The following morning, according to documents filed in the case, Mr. Goldsmith emailed his head of human resources: “My intent is to fire her today.” Told that this would be seen as illegal retaliation, he instead said Ms. Dell’Anno should be fired after she returned from medical leave, according to filings.

And she was, about three weeks later, by which time Mr. Goldsmith had found a reason: Mishandling her portfolio of misdemeanor domestic violence complaints, a matter that hadn’t been raised before her leave.

In court documents, each side tells a different story about these cases. An attorney in Ms. Dell’Anno’s division evidently had allowed the statute of limitations to lapse on some misdemeanor complaints without action, and without informing the alleged victims.

According to Ms. Dell’Anno, she followed protocol, investigated the problem, and properly informed Mr. Goldsmith’s management team. But Mr. Goldsmith testified that the matter never reached his level — even though evidence showed that, during the investigation he convened during Ms. Dell’Anno’s absence, he had found two old memos that “apparently not much was done about.”

The reason for this communication failing is unknown, but in any case, court documents and news articles show that Mr. Goldsmith fired only two people: Ms. Dell’Anno and the lower-level attorney responsible for the cases. The junior attorney quickly found another prosecutor job — pursuing felony crimes, in fact — but Ms. Dell’Anno was shut out based on what she claimed in court documents was a smear campaign by “one or more high ranking officials and/or employees at the City Attorney’s office.”

She also was damaged by Mr. Goldsmith’s savvy media spin, including a story in the prominent San Diego Union-Tribune , according to testimony. While the newspaper quoted Mr. Goldsmith as “declin[ing] to identify the lawyers involved [in] a confidential personnel matter,” it also said four unnamed sources confirmed that Ms. Dell’Anno had been held responsible for “98 bungled cases .”

By her own account, Ms. Dell’Anno became unemployable as a prosecutor, and at one point considered turning to teaching to support her three children as a single mother. “It became pretty clear that I was being blackballed in the legal community,” she said in a deposition.

Ultimately, she opened her own law practice instead. In the interim she survived on loans and savings; her income for 2016, the year after her termination, was just $7,500, she testified. In 2021, an expert found that Ms. Dell’Anno still hadn’t “reached parity with her pre-termination earning capacity.”

In total, the jury in the case said, the former prosecutor’s economic loss due to Mr. Goldsmith’s actions had reached about $734,000 by the time of the trial — and would amount to a further $2.66 million in the future.

It awarded her a further $500,000 for physical and emotional damage.

In their verdict, the jurors confirmed that Ms. Dell’Anno wouldn’t have been fired if she hadn’t raised concerns about the spit battery case, the attempt to charge Mr. Briggs, and the request to remove the evaluation of an attorney under investigation — and that in each case Ms. Dell’Anno had “reasonable cause to believe that [Mr. Goldsmith’s requested actions] would result in … a violation of or noncompliance with” laws or rules.

Mr. Goldsmith didn’t run for reelection in 2016 due to term limits.

» Read Ms. Dell’Anno’s complaint

» Watch a news segment of Ms. Dell’Anno speaking with ABC 10 News

The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Marlea Dell’Anno v. City of San Diego. We select “Bad Boss” cases to illustrate the continuing relevance of employee protection laws for our newsletter’s audience, which includes attorneys and former TELG clients.

Ms. Dell’Anno was represented by Denning Moores APC.

Truth and Consequences

This Bad Boss Asked an Employee to Lie Under Oath — and Fired Him After He Refused

When Matthew Flanigan saw evidence that a senior executive at his company might be violating security protocols, he alerted a group that included Allan Metzger, the cofounder and then-CEO of Rheumatology Diagnostics Laboratory (RDL), a Los Angeles-based medical testing facility.

At first, Mr. Metzger agreed to restrict the executive’s access to RDL’s computer network, according to a lawsuit filed later by Mr. Flanigan, who was the lab’s IT director.

But after the alleged culprit made a fuss, Mr. Metzger instead reversed course and dragged Mr. Flanigan into a high-stakes corporate battle by asking him to declare under oath that he’d never seen any sign of a security breach, according to testimony.

Mr. Flanigan refused to lie for the CEO, a former doctor who had previously made headlines for his care of pop stars Janet and Michael Jackson — and who had surrendered his medical license in 2014 after being convicted of sexually exploiting a patient during an examination, according to court records.

Instead, the IT director signed a declaration for the other side in the fight — and quickly faced retaliation.

According to court documents, Mr. Metzger suspended Mr. Flanigan and started a probe of his behavior. Among the investigators: The husband of the executive who had earlier been flagged for security violations.

Just two weeks later Mr. Flanigan was fired, supposedly for deleting company files during his suspension, an action he believes was concocted to frame him, according to court documents.

Allan Metzger is our latest Bad Boss of the Month.

Mr. Flanigan sued RDL in California state court, claiming he’d actually been fired for, among other things, refusing to perjure himself. In late 2021, a Los Angeles jury found RDL liable and awarded him $1.68 million in damages. This May a judge awarded Mr. Flanigan nearly $900,000 more in interest, costs, and attorney fees.

RDL, the main assets of which were acquired by testing giant LabCorp in 2020, is appealing the verdict.

Mr. Flanigan had been at RDL for just over a year when the trouble started — but he already was thriving at the lab, having earned a promotion, a company car, and $40,000 in raises during his short tenure.

As IT director his job included overseeing computer security, so he was alarmed in early 2017 when software showed that RDL’s new compliance chief, Kristine Azarraga, had plugged in an unauthorized thumb drive and introduced foreign files into the lab’s network.

The files, Mr. Flanigan said in court documents, came from Ms. Azarraga’s previous employer, also a healthcare company, and included personal data from thousands of patients in apparent violation of HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, a law that protects the privacy of such information.

The IT director went to the top with his concerns, calling a meeting with Mr. Metzger and two other top executives, Samuel Morris and Richard Kazdan. Faced with Ms. Azarraga’s apparent misuse of a former employer’s data, the men initially agreed to limit her access to RDL’s data, Mr. Flanigan testified.

But then things went sideways.

First, Mr. Metzger reversed the decision about Ms. Azarraga after the compliance chief complained: “I’m the CEO and you’ll … do what I tell you to do,” Mr. Flanigan said Mr. Metzger yelled at him.

And second, the incident pulled the IT director into a fight that was stewing between the CEO and the other two executives to whom Mr. Flanigan had reported Ms. Azarraga’s breach, Mr. Morris and Mr. Kazdan.

Some background: RDL had been founded in 1976 by Mr. Metzger and the late Robert Morris, a noted rheumatologist and the father of Samuel Morris. For decades, the lab was run by the elder Morris, who acted as president, and his wife Barbara, who acted as CEO. Son Samuel later joined as a top manager.

Although Mr. Metzger was a co-owner, he mostly pursued flashier interests, according to court filings — including prescribing medication to stars such as Janet Jackson, for which he was censured in 2000, and accompanying Michael Jackson on tour as a physician.

(Mr. Metzger didn’t prescribe or administer the drugs that caused Mr. Jackson’s death in 2009; indeed, he testified against Conrad Murray, the physician who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the case.)

Mr. Kazdan was the lab’s longtime CFO.

By 2016 Robert and Barbara Morris were ailing; both would die before long. Having lost his California medical license in 2014, Mr. Metzger turned his focus to RDL — and, with the help of a minority shareholder, voted for himself as CEO to wrest control of the lab away from the Morrises, according to court filings.

Mr. Metzger treated RDL as a “personal piggy bank,” according to a declaration filed in court by the younger Mr. Morris: The new CEO paid himself an $800,000 salary; leased a Maserati as a company car; flew first-class and stayed in posh hotels with a girlfriend on “alleged … business outings”; and engaged in “sexual harassment” of RDL employees. The lab began to struggle financially, according to Mr. Morris, who testified that he had to lend RDL money just to make payroll.

Against this backdrop, Ms. Azarraga’s network access wasn’t just a security matter: It was fodder for a claim of mismanagement against Mr. Metzger.

Following the Azarraga incident, both Mr. Morris and Mr. Kazdan left RDL; Mr. Morris resigned and Mr. Kazdan was fired after warning the CEO about improper lab practices, according to court documents. In August, the duo filed a derivative action against Mr. Metzger and others, including Ms. Azarraga, claiming a breach of fiduciary duty and seeking at least $20 million for shareholders, along with changes to RDL’s “governance, policies and culture.”

Among the facts they cited: Mr. Flanigan’s warning about Ms. Azarraga — and Mr. Metzger’s subsequent restoration of her network privileges.

After being served with the lawsuit, the CEO summoned Mr. Flanigan into his office, according to testimony. A lawyer for RDL attended via phone and quizzed the IT director about the Azarraga incident; a few days later, Mr. Flanigan received a document in which he was asked to swear that he was unaware of any evidence that Ms. Azarraga had violated security protocols.

“Having reported Ms. Azarraga for doing precisely that only four months earlier,” Judge Terry Green noted in a later order, Mr. Flanigan “could not very well sign the declaration.”

Meanwhile, attorneys for Mr. Morris and Mr. Kazdan had also been in touch with the IT director. They too had drafted a declaration — and on the same day he refused to endorse Mr. Metzger’s document, Mr. Flanigan signed the competing version, which he found to be truthful.

The next day, after his declaration was filed in court, the IT director was put on investigative leave. The issue, according to court documents: In his declaration, Mr. Flanigan might have disclosed privileged information — and Mr. Metzger wanted to see whether he was leaking dirt to the other side. The IT director was forbidden to access RDL’s computer system.

Mr. Flanigan wasn’t at work when he got news of the suspension; the morning after siding against Mr. Metzger, he had called in sick with chest pains. His RDL office was quickly stripped of his personal effects.

“It was pretty obvious that they intended to fire me,” he testified.

Ironically, just weeks earlier Mr. Flanigan had been cleared of any collaboration with the recently departed Mr. Morris and Mr. Kazdan — via a secret investigation launched by Mr. Metzger himself. Concerned that his email had been compromised, the CEO had asked an outside security consultant to assess whether his IT director was “spying,” according to a copy of the report filed in the case.

The resulting exoneration was definitive: “I … would go so far as to stake my professional reputation … that the likelihood of Matt Flanigan committing any wrongdoing or unethical activity [is remote],” the investigator wrote in a report that didn’t surface until years into the lawsuit.

Nonetheless, RDL pressed ahead with another investigation. This time evidence showed that “the conclusion was foregone,” according to Judge Green.

First, according to court documents, came an informal probe by — of all people — Ms. Azarraga’s husband, Garabed Yegavian, himself an IT professional. Mr. Yegavian “might well” have been biased against Mr. Flanigan, according to Judge Green.

Either way, Mr. Yegavian promptly delivered logs that purported to show that Mr. Flanigan had deleted a bunch of files after being banned from the network. Then RDL provided the same logs to an outside investigator, who agreed with Mr. Yegavian’s conclusion — but didn’t address what Judge Green called “the very real possibility” that someone else had used Mr. Flanigan’s passwords, which he had provided to RDL, to create the firing offense. In fact, records showed that the IT director wasn’t at the RDL office when Mr. Yegavian’s logs supposedly showed him logging in from there.

Based on these investigations, which Judge Green wrote “can hardly be called rigorous,” Mr. Metzger fired Mr. Flanigan in September 2017. About a month later, RDL began paying Mr. Yegavian as a consultant, according to court documents.

The matter finally reached trial in state court in September 2021. After three weeks of proceedings, a Los Angeles jury found Mr. Metzger’s firing of the IT director to be both unlawful and “malicious, oppressive, and/or fraudulent,” awarding Mr. Flanigan $1.08 million in direct damages and a further $600,000 in punitive damages — to which Judge Green later added almost $900,000 in interest, fees, and costs, for a total of more than $2.5 million.

The dispute over RDL’s governance, meanwhile, settled in 2019. After selling most of the business to LabCorp, Mr. Metzger wound up the corporation in 2020, according to state filings. His medical license had been reinstated earlier that year, with a host of probationary conditions that included the use of a chaperone when treating female patients and successful completion of a program on “professional boundaries,” but the now-former CEO agreed to surrender his license again in 2021.

The most recent order by the Medical Board of California doesn’t state a reason, but cites a provision that covers either Mr. Metzger’s decision to stop practicing medicine or his inability “to satisfy the terms and conditions of probation.”

» Read Mr. Flanigan’s complaint

» Watch Mr. Metzger’s testimony in the trial of Conrad Murray, a physician convicted of the involuntary manslaughter of Michael Jackson


The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Flanigan v. Rheumatology Diagnostics Laboratory, Inc. We select “Bad Boss” cases to illustrate the continuing relevance of employee protection laws for our newsletter’s audience, which includes attorneys and former TELG clients.

Mr. Flanigan was represented by the Law Offices of Edward Y. Lee.


Prison Break

This Bad Boss Triggered an Injured Employee’s PTSD — Then Took Him to Court.

Getting badly hurt by an inmate should have been the low point of Darrin Rushing’s career as a corrections officer.

But according to a lawsuit, it was just the start of his troubles.

Mr. Rushing’s leg had been shattered as he tried to break up a scuffle between prisoners at the Macomb Correctional Facility, a state prison outside Detroit. He was confined to a wheelchair for months.

When Mr. Rushing finally returned to full duty, he asked to have no further contact with Lester Gunn, the prisoner who broke his leg, but his request was denied. Before long he had an encounter with Mr. Gunn that awakened his post-traumatic stress disorder, according to testimony in the case.

Even so, Mr. Rushing’s boss, James Webster, kept assigning him to the same duty, jurors heard at trial — and when Mr. Rushing left work to avoid another bout of PTSD, Mr. Webster reported him for insubordination.

Tensions escalated between the men, according to testimony, as Mr. Webster harmed Mr. Rushing’s efforts to get a different job and gave him triggering tasks such as cleaning up blood after an assault.

Mr. Webster, a lieutenant, even dragged his subordinate into court, claiming that he feared Mr. Rushing would get physical. The supervisor sought a protective order that could have cost Mr. Rushing his job; a judge denied the request as improper.

James Webster is our latest Bad Boss of the Month.

Ultimately, Mr. Rushing filed a complaint against the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC), alleging several violations of Michigan’s Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act. This April, a state jury awarded Mr. Rushing more than $1.2 million in damages.

Mr. Rushing had grown up with a strong sense of duty: The youngest of six brothers, he began taking on extra tasks at age seven, including the collection of donated food, when his abusive, alcoholic father left the family, according to court documents.

After high school, Mr. Rushing served for six years in the Marines and held a number of service-oriented jobs. In 1999, he began working for the MDOC, earning a top honor at the training academy, he testified. He had a trouble-free corrections career until 2011, when he received his life-altering injury at Macomb.

According to the incident report, two inmates got into a fight. One prisoner was quickly restrained; Mr. Rushing was among the responders who tried to control the other, Lester Gunn, a large, heavy man who resisted violently.

“He fought, kicked, he dislocated my ankle, we fell to the floor-and when he fell on me, he bent my leg backward and I sustained a grade four spiral fracture” of the calf bone, Mr. Rushing testified. “[His] 230-pound body landed on me. He heard my leg snap in half. Everybody heard it.”

Mr. Rushing had to undergo surgery twice; a doctor advised him that any further injury could disable him permanently, he told jurors.

After the incident, Mr. Rushing took medical leave and, in 2012, swapped his wheelchair for a cane and returned to MDOC for a long transition period with lighter duties. Along the way, he finished up a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, being cleared by doctors to bear weight on his leg just six days before his graduation.

For several years, Mr. Rushing thrived doing administrative and counseling work. Then in 2015, while he was still limping, he was pushed back into full duty as a corrections officer at Macomb — and quickly learned that Mr. Gunn, the inmate who had broken his leg, was returning to the prison after a move elsewhere.

Mr. Rushing had first requested a no-contact order against Mr. Gunn from his hospital bed immediately after the incident, he testified, but the matter was moot back then. Now, it was more urgent.

Mr. Gunn had a violent history, according to court records. Multiple MDOC officers had no-contact orders against him for injuries that included bites, head-punching, and lacerations, with several requiring stitches and leading to prosecution, according to a “Special Problem Offender Notice” filed in the case.

Mr. Rushing’s concerns, however, were rebuffed .

Within the space of a month, Mr. Rushing faced Mr. Gunn three times in the chow hall at Macomb, triggering symptoms such as anxiety and an uncontrollably jittering foot. On the third occasion, he testified, the hulking inmate addressed him by name, shot a glance at the injured leg, and ominously asked how he was feeling.

This was enough to spark what Mr. Rushing’s doctor diagnosed as a PTSD episode, leading to several weeks of medical leave, another request for a no-contact order, and yet another denial — the fifth, according to Mr. Rushing’s complaint in the case .

When Mr. Rushing returned to Macomb, he was again assigned to the chow hall at the insistence of Mr. Webster, the lieutenant, according to testimony . On the first day, he quietly swapped duties with a colleague, but on the second day, he was ordered to comply. He pleaded with a sergeant for different duty, to no avail.

“I’ll do anything you want … even go dig through a prisoner’s poop,” he testified he said, before escalating the matter to the prison’s control center, where Mr. Webster was.

“I explained everything briefly … how I could not come face-to-face with Prisoner Gunn,” he said in a deposition. “I was not ready. And [Mr. Webster] said, You’re going to the chow hall.”

Feeling the onset of a panic attack, Mr. Rushing instead decided to go home sick. He was trembling as he removed his equipment, he testified, and kept dropping things. Under medical care for his PTSD, he wouldn’t return to the prison for several months.

The day he left, according to testimony, Mr. Webster requested that Mr. Rushing be investigated for insubordination.

Ironically, Mr. Gunn wasn’t even in the chow hall that day. No one told Mr. Rushing at the time, but the inmate he feared had been transferred to another facility for unrelated reasons .

After Mr. Rushing was cleared by his doctor, he returned to Macomb and faced the result of the insubordination probe that had been requested by Mr. Webster: A five-day unpaid suspension. The lieutenant was waiting outside the prison’s HR office after Mr. Rushing was informed and promptly requested another investigation based on his subordinate’s reaction.

In testimony, both men agreed that Mr. Rushing was angry and snapped at Mr. Webster outside the HR office. But Mr. Webster also claimed that Mr. Rushing spoke to another person and hinted at violence against the lieutenant — something Mr. Rushing denied.

Mr. Webster took the extraordinary step of asking a Michigan state judge for a protective order that would bar his subordinate from the workplace. Mr. Rushing was humiliated by being served with the papers in the prison lobby, in front of coworkers, he testified.

The judge quickly denied Mr. Webster’s request, saying at a hearing that the alleged threat, even if it had happened, was “vague” and “heat of the moment.” With no claim of further threats, MDOC’s internal process should be allowed to play out, she said; the lieutenant’s pleading “doesn’t fly.”

“Basically, you’re coming to this court for [Mr. Rushing] to lose his job,” the judge said. “I really don’t think that is the proper place.”

MDOC’s internal investigation led to a second suspension for Mr. Rushing. In an affidavit, a former deputy warden called both suspensions “inappropriate and excessive.”

“Officer Rushing should have been shown some compassion considering he was assaulted by a prisoner he would encounter,” he wrote.

Via a grievance process, Mr. Rushing ultimately retrieved some of the lost pay — but he continued to be harmed by the discipline process and by Mr. Webster’s failed request for a protective order.

In 2016, for instance, Mr. Rushing applied for a position with the Saint Clair County Sheriff’s Department. He reached the final round of interviews — but then, during a reference check, his prospective employer reached Mr. Webster.

“I’m probably not the person you want to talk to,” said Mr. Webster, according to an MDOC email filed in court. “I recently put a [personal protective order] out on Officer Rushing.”

Mr. Rushing didn’t get the job.

His disciplinary record stopped him from being promoted internally, according to testimony, despite Mr. Rushing’s long experience and strong education, plus military service that was considered as a positive factor by MDOC.

In 2017, for example, an assistant deputy warden told him he was the most qualified candidate to become a program coordinator, Mr. Rushing testified — but was “instantly deflated” to learn of the suspensions.

A candidate with less relevant experience was hired instead, according to court records.

Meanwhile, Mr. Webster continued to be his supervisor, assigning him tasks that Mr. Rushing viewed as punitive.

In one instance, a friend of Mr. Rushing was attacked by an inmate. According to Mr. Rushing’s deposition, blood was splattered as high as four feet on several walls; Mr. Webster ordered Mr. Rushing to clean it up, even though other officers were available.

According to a psychiatric evaluation in court records, the incident aggravated Mr. Rushing’s PTSD, increasing his nightmares, flashbacks, and panic attacks. At trial, both Mr. Rushing and his wife told jurors that his marriage suffered from the ongoing stress of working with Mr. Webster; he withdrew from his family and stopped having dinner with them.

Mr. Rushing filed an internal complaint against Mr. Webster but, according to court documents, it went nowhere. In 2018, he filed his lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections.

In April 2022, after a three-week trial, a jury found MDOC liable to Mr. Rushing for failing to accommodate his disability; for discriminating against him; and for retaliation. Jury members awarded the officer, who remains employed by MDOC, more than $400,000 in past and future economic damages — and almost $868,000 for physical and emotional harm.

According to his attorney, Mr. Rushing was finally promoted shortly before the trial began.

» Read Mr. Rushing’s first amended complaint in the case

» Read the incident report of Mr. Rushing’s injury

The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Rushing v. Michigan Department of Corrections. We select “Bad Boss” cases to illustrate the continuing relevance of employee protection laws for our newsletter’s audience, which includes attorneys and former TELG clients.

Mr. Rushing was represented by Marko Law.

Tic, Tic, Boom

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.

» Read Mr. Bell’s first amended complaint in the case

» Read the email complaint Mr. Bell sent to O’Reilly’s HR department

» Read the order from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit

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.

Title Roles

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.

» Read Ms. Bralock’s complaint in the case

» See some of the flyers passed out by Mr. Johnson

» Watch a promo video for Mr. Johnson’s violent antihero comic book “The Pastor”

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.

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

R. Scott Oswald
Managing Principal
The Employment Law Group

Contributing Writers
Jessica Curbelo
Ann Oldenburg

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Laurence Hooper
Marketing Principal
The Employment Law Group

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