Unnerved by an Employee’s Use of an IV Drip, This Bad Boss Chose to Eliminate Her Job
When Linda Dunnagan developed a life-threatening condition after a decade of service in local government, she expected her supervisor to show some concern.
Instead, he showed her the door.
Ms. Dunnagan had been hospitalized for a serious infection, and returned to work with an intravenous drip that she used to administer her own medication. The drip didn’t affect her performance as comptroller of Madison County, Ill., but evidently it unsettled her boss, county treasurer Kurt Prenzler.
After seeing her with the drip, Mr. Prenzler urged Ms. Dunnagan to retire, according to court testimony. When she demurred, he eliminated her job and offered her a choice between demotion and retirement.
Kurt Prenzler is our new “Bad Boss of the Month.”
Ms. Dunnagan retired under protest and filed suit in federal court. In February, a jury awarded her $450,000 in damages, finding that Mr. Prenzler’s actions violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. Madison County taxpayers are on the hook for the damages award, and possibly also for Ms. Dunnagan’s legal fees; county lawyers have asked for a reduction in the verdict.
Ms. Dunnagan wasn’t considering retirement in 2012 when she entered hospital for a serious infection. By then she had worked as county comptroller for 10 years, suffering from rheumatoid arthritis but often exceeding expectations despite her impairments. She hoped to work for at least two more years.
Mr. Prenzler had been Ms. Dunnagan’s boss since 2010, when he was first elected as county treasurer; in court documents he said he had been unaware of her disability.
After getting out of the hospital, Ms. Dunnagan returned to work in August 2012. For months afterward she gave herself medication twice daily via an IV drip, as instructed by her doctor, but this didn’t interfere with her duties — a fact acknowledged by Mr. Prenzler in court documents.
Still, Ms. Dunnagan testified, her boss seemed agitated by her use of the drip, which she needed to stave off complications. Mr. Prenzler admitted he was concerned about “risk of contagions” to other employees, even though Ms. Dunnagan’s doctor had cleared her to work without restrictions.
It was around that time, according to Ms. Dunnagan, that she was instructed to train someone else to do her job.
In November Ms. Dunnagan was hospitalized once more but quickly returned — along with her IV drip. This time Mr. Prenzler called a meeting with the county’s human resources director. According to Ms. Dunnagan, Mr. Prenzler pressured her to retire and seek disability benefits.
Mr. Prenzler said he just wanted “to make sure she was aware of the benefits she was entitled to.”
Ms. Dunnagan told others she feared she was being pushed out because of her disability. And indeed, a few weeks later Mr. Prenzler announced that he had decided to eliminate her position and divide her responsibilities among two other people. He offered her a new position that paid almost 40% less; deprived her of an office; and had a lesser title — “Assistant Accounting Manager and Real Estate Manager.”
Mr. Prenzler framed the change as part of a broader cost-cutting campaign. In her lawsuit, however, Ms. Dunnagan argued that was just a pretext for discrimination. She sought damages for her lost income and benefits, including a richer pension she would have received had she retired at a later date, and also for the distress and humiliation she suffered.
The jury found in her favor and awarded Ms. Dunnagan $450,000 — an amount that quickly became a political football, as Mr. Prenzler had earlier refused a settlement offer for far less.
Mr. Prenzler now believes taxpayers should give him a promotion: In November, he’s on the ballot to become chairman of the county board. He told a local newspaper that he disagrees with the verdict and expects the county to pursue an appeal.
“I promised to cut my budget,” he said, “and I did.”
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Dunnagan v. Madison County Treasurer’s Office. We select “Bad Boss” cases to illustrate the continuing relevance of employee protection laws for our newsletter’s audience, which includes attorneys and former TELG clients.