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This Bad Boss Frightened Employees with a Fake Armed Robbery

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

» Ms. Lee's First Amended Complaint


The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Lee v. West Kern Water District. We select "Bad Boss" cases to illustrate the continuing relevance of employee protection laws for our newsletter's audience, which includes attorneys and former TELG clients.

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