This Bad Boss Canned Two High-Achieving Siblings — One of Them “Jersey-Style” at a Parkway Rest Stop
Ramon Cuevas managed residential properties, and he did it well. During his tenure as regional vice president of Wentworth Property Management Corp. (WPM), based in Eatontown, N.J., he received high ratings and expanded his property purview from nine to 24.
WPM also hired Ramon’s brother Jeffrey Cuevas — and Jeffrey quickly thrived, too, rising from portfolio manager to executive director. The siblings were minority success stories: Although the WPM workforce was 20 percent Hispanic, Ramon was the only Hispanic person in upper-level management. Jeffrey hoped to join him there.
Things soured for the Cuevas siblings, according to court documents, when they fell under the supervision of Arthur Bartikofsky, executive vice president of operations at WPM, a part of FirstService Corp., the Canadian property-services giant. Suddenly they found themselves singled out for belittlement as “the two Chihuahuas,” among other slights.
Mr. Bartikofsky set the demeaning tone, according to testimony, with unfunny cracks like the one at a business lunch, where he talked about sending Ramon Cuevas to “join his father” washing dishes in the back of the restaurant. Other executives joined in the mockery — even WPM’s director of human resources.
Both brothers hated the jibes, but tried not to seem thin-skinned. Jeffrey Cuevas finally complained to WPM’s in-house lawyer, however, and Mr. Bartikofsky responded by firing the junior brother. A few weeks later, on New Year’s Day, Mr. Bartikofsky tapped his inner Tony Soprano and asked Ramon Cuevas to meet him at a rest area on the Garden State Parkway.
“Don’t bother sitting down,” said Mr. Bartikofsky. “You’re terminated.” The scene evoked a “Jersey-style” hit, according to one of Mr. Cuevas’ lawyers.
Arthur Bartikofsky is our new Bad Boss of the Month.
The Cuevas brothers filed a complaint claiming discrimination and retaliation, among other things, and a state jury awarded them total damages of $2.5 million — including a combined $1.4 million for emotional distress. In September 2016, the Supreme Court of New Jersey affirmed the emotional damages, noting that the Cuevas were subjected to “mental anguish and humiliation … sustained over a long period.”
In court, Ramon and Jeffrey Cuevas described the ethnic comments as relentless — and said that Mr. Bartikofsky was the enabler, “joking” about their heritage at high-level meetings, staff gatherings, and even in front of vendors and contractors. Other WPM executives in attendance, including the company’s president, said nothing or added their own tired tropes.
While executives were listening to music before a conference call began, for instance, someone asked for “something a little more to Ramon’s taste … a little Mariachi or salsa music?” At catered lunches, people would mock-apologize to Ramon for not having burritos or tacos. At a restaurant, someone pointed out a Hispanic bus boy and told Ramon he “could have been your twin.” One day Ramon had to fix a flat tire on his way to work; a colleague suggested he was lucky not to have been mistaken for a “Puerto Rican … trying to steal … the hubcaps.”
Ramon Cuevas testified that he felt “chopped down day by day, month by month” by the stereotypes. And once he was promoted, Jeffrey Cuevas also faced “extremely degrading” treatment at many of the same meetings. One reaction when Jeffrey joined the executive circle: “[W]e’re going to need … another Chihuahua.”
Mr. Bartikofsky already had been calling Ramon Cuevas “Rico Suave,” a reference to the 1990 hit song about a ladies’ man by Ecuadorian rapper Gerardo. Now Mr. Bartikofsky began talking about the “Rico Suave brothers,” while WPM’s HR chief referred to the Cuevas as “the Latin Lovers,” according to testimony — a label that Jeffrey Cuevas found especially “grotesque” coming from a personnel expert.
Another theme: Dangerous Hispanic people. Two WPM property managers testified that Mr. Bartikofsky assured them that Ramon Cuevas could keep them safe in bad neighborhoods because he was “one of them.” Jeffrey Cuevas heard the same notion from another WPM regional vice president, who added that Ramon would “have his switchblade with him, because, of course, he’s Spanish.”
Both brothers hesitated to complain because WPM’s top brass was already aware of the harassment — and indeed, often participated. When Jeffrey Cuevas couldn’t stand it anymore, however, he flagged his discomfort to WPM’s in-house counsel. Just four days later, Mr. Bartikofsky terminated him.
Shocked, Jeffrey Cuevas initially thought the firing was a joke: He had gotten a merit raise just a few weeks earlier. But Mr. Bartikofsky stood firm and ordered Jeffrey to clear out his desk. As he made what he called his “walk of shame” out of the office, Jeffrey Cuevas wondered how to tell his wife that he had lost his job three weeks before Christmas.
WPM replaced Jeffrey Cuevas with a Caucasian male pest-control manager who had no property management experience.
A few weeks later, on New Year’s Day, Ramon Cuevas got an unexpected call from Mr. Bartikofsky, who asked for a meeting at the Cheesequake Service Area on the Garden State Parkway. Although the request was strange, Ramon agreed. When he arrived, Mr. Bartikovsky handed him an envelope and fired him on the spot. Inside the envelope was a letter blaming Ramon for losing accounts — and accusing him of soliciting a kickback, a charge he denied.
At trial, WPM portrayed the unusual firing location as a matter of convenience. One of Mr. Cuevas’ lawyers, however, said WPM wanted to do it “Jersey-style. [The mob] used to issue hits that way. That was the mentality.”
Ramon, like Jeffrey, was replaced by a Caucasian male. Despondent and edgy from a long period of humiliation, he had been fighting with his wife. Now, just a few months after the termination, she filed for divorce. He wound up sleeping on a friend’s sofa.
In appealing the jury’s verdict for emotional damages, WPM argued that any insensitive remarks attributed to Mr. Bartikofsky or other executives were just “teasing,” and that $1.4 million was excessive as a total award. The New Jersey Supreme Court disagreed, saying that as a general matter it won’t second-guess a jury’s reaction …
… to the timbre of a voice that recalls the emotional cuts and slashes felt from racially animated discrimination; to in-depth descriptions of daily workplace humiliations that mentally beat down an employee; and to first-hand accounts of mental anguish — anguish that leads to depression and frays personal relationships.
The awards — $800,000 to Ramon Cuevas and $600,000 to Jeffrey Cuevas — would stand.
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Cuevas v. Wentworth Group. 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.