At a Pittsburgh Jail, This Bad Boss Put the ‘FML’ in FMLA
Over nearly 30 years of work at the Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh, Walter Mikulan became a father figure to many of the officers who served under him.
“He was our teacher,” testified one former captain at the jail. “He was a true leader,” testified another.
Understated and discreet, Mr. Mikulan — “Mick” to his staff — had started his career as a corrections officer in 1984. He rose through the ranks to become a major, the third highest rank at the Pittsburgh facility, with responsibility for the entire jail during his evening shift.
In 2012, however, a hard-nosed Army veteran named Orlando Harper became the jail’s new warden and, according to court testimony, launched an obsessive campaign to “combat” what he saw as overuse of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) — the law that requires employers to accommodate workers who need time off to take care of themselves or family members.
Mr. Harper was especially ticked by senior officers who took FMLA leave, Mr. Mikulan and others testified, since the warden believed that supervisors should set an example. That posed a problem for Mr. Mikulan, diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and for other older officers who needed leave for health issues.
Before long Mr. Mikulan, who was under doctor’s orders to take sporadic days off, found himself being written up for trivial issues with paperwork — incidents that showed Mr. Mikulan’s unacceptable “insubordination,” the warden would insist at trial. As one example, according to testimony, Mr. Mikulan was disciplined because a subordinate had signed a form electronically rather than with a pen.
After three such incidents, and with no warning, Mr. Harper fired Mr. Mikulan after offering the major a chance to resign to avoid “being disgraced,” according to testimony.
Mr. Mikulan, then 58, was escorted out of the jail in view of other officers; his job was filled by a much younger man.
Orlando Harper is our new Bad Boss of the Month.
Mr. Mikulan filed a lawsuit against Allegheny County, claiming both age discrimination and FMLA retaliation. (It’s illegal to fire employees for exercising their rights under the FMLA.) At trial, a federal jury rejected Mr. Harper’s insubordination rationale and awarded Mr. Mikulan nearly $900,000 in damages. Late last year, the parties settled for a total of $1.15 million, including attorney fees.
Orlando Harper had arrived as warden of the Pittsburgh jail — and as Mr. Mikulan’s boss — in 2012 after spending more than two decades in the Washington, D.C. Department of Corrections. According to testimony, one of his immediate priorities was to curb FMLA “abuse,” which county officials had previously identified as a cause of budget overruns, since the jail paid overtime to cover the shifts of some officers on leave.
Mr. Harper “had a bug about FML,” a former jail captain told the jury. “He believed that we needed to lead by example … He didn’t want [supervisors] off on FMLA.”
Mr. Mikulan testified that he felt singled out in the warden’s staff meetings, where FMLA leave was often discussed: “He would say, ‘If even a major abuses Family Medical Leave, he’s going to be terminated’ — and he would be looking directly at me.”
In other meetings that Mr. Mikulan didn’t attend, a different former captain testified, Mr. Harper said that he “needed both of his majors [at work] on a daily basis” — and that the warden clearly “was not happy” that Mr. Mikulan was using leave.
“There was a comment that [Mr. Mikulan and another, older major] would not be there by the end of the year,” the former captain told jurors. “I felt that Major Mikulan [had been] good to me through the years — that he needed to know — and I asked him, ‘You got plans on retiring or something?'”
Mr. Mikulan did not: He planned to work until “65 or 66 years old. Social Security kicks in, Medicare kicks in. Bingo. You have a nice retirement,” he testified. But his seniority and health issues, he said, made him a target at the jail.
The warden’s FMLA fixation wasn’t limited to Mr. Mikulan, jurors heard. Daniel Troiano, a former captain, testified that he took intermittent FMLA leave for stress after suffering a heart attack while at the jail — and that Mr. Harper ripped him in a meeting for taking “that much” leave, despite doctor’s orders to do so.
“He says to me, ‘I don’t understand how a captain can be stressed,'” Mr. Troiano told the court.
Not long afterward, after an incident where a subordinate forgot to stash her gun in a locker before entering work during his shift, Mr. Troiano was offered a choice between resigning or attending a hearing in which he expected to be fired despite his minor role in the matter, he testified.
Afraid of losing his pension, he resigned.
Mr. Troiano attended the trial despite being on his “last leg,” jurors heard from Mr. Mikulan’s attorney. The witness “barely made it in here and barely made it out of here … [It] may be one of the last things that man will ever do,” the attorney said in court — and indeed, Mr. Troiano died a few months later.
Another former captain told jurors that the shabby treatment of Mr. Troiano and Mr. Mikulan, among others, showed how disciplinary action was used by Mr. Harper — most noticeably for older supervisory officers, who were repeatedly dinged for offenses that were “frankly nonsense” and “ridiculous discipline … to the point where they had to retire.”
“I think there was a threat of termination hanging over my head and a lot of other people’s heads,” he testified, citing his own medical issues. “After Warden Harper came in [people] counted down how long they had to go until they could retire.”
The captain told jurors that he, too, opted to retire upon reaching 55, the youngest age for such a move.
Under Mr. Harper’s regime, all three of Mr. Mikulan’s write-ups — which the major called “minor” — were about paperwork from his staff.
The first incident concerned a “roll call book” that wasn’t completed by the usual deadline. This task was supposed to be handled by subordinates, according to testimony, but Mr. Mikulan was given a “counseling session” for allowing the lapse, which he learned about on his day off — and which he told jurors he immediately arranged to have finished, still ahead of when it was needed.
The second incident came a couple of months later, when one of Mr. Mikulan’s captains signed an “Overtime Justification Sheet” electronically rather than manually.
And three months after that, Mr. Mikulan got a black mark for failing to turn in his staff’s “Property Accountability Sheets” on time — despite testimony that he had gotten an extension. The sheets were a new formality requested by Mr. Harper, jurors heard: Acknowledgments that each employee was familiar with the county’s property regulations.
None of these disciplinary actions was logged as insubordination — and Mr. Harper’s deputy, who meted out the discipline, told the court that the resulting record didn’t justify the firing of Mr. Mikulan, whom he agreed was a dedicated employee.
Stressed out by the new warden’s scrutiny, Mr. Mikulan’s demeanor “changed dramatically,” according to the major’s wife, Mary Mikulan, who gave her testimony sporting a scarf to cover baldness that was due to chemotherapy treatment for cancer. Her husband previously had been proud and upbeat about his work, she told jurors, but now “he was more stressed, more frustrated. Seemed to talk a lot more, more negative about his job than positive.”
“I would just get to the point where, you know, ‘Just quit,'” Ms. Mikulan testified. “But that wasn’t him. He didn’t quit.”
Instead, he was suddenly fired. Less than a year after Mr. Harper’s arrival, and shortly after the property-sheet issue, the warden called Mr. Mikulan into his office.
“He says, ‘Major Mikulan, the reason we are here today is to terminate your employment with Allegheny County.’ Jeez, I almost dropped on the floor,” Mr. Mikulan told the court. “[But then he] said, ‘I’m going to do you a favor. I’m going to allow you to resign instead of me terminating you.'”
Mr. Mikulan bluntly refused, jurors heard, and Mr. Harper directed his deputy to escort him out of the jail. At the time, said Mr. Mikulan, no reason was offered for his termination. On the same day, according to court documents, Mr. Harper also fired Ruth Howse, a jail administrator who had recently returned from FMLA leave.
“When I left, I felt devastated,” Mr. Mikulan testified. “I felt like I was just beat down with a stick … I really didn’t want to go anywhere, see anybody. I hated to answer the phone because … everybody was calling to find out what happened …. They were stating that they saw it on TV. They were stating they read it in the paper.”
At trial, Mr. Harper was asked repeatedly to justify his claim that Mr. Mikulan had been insubordinate and deserved to be fired, despite conclusions to the contrary by his deputy, who was Mr. Mikulan’s direct supervisor. The warden steadfastly insisted that each of the three disciplinary actions amounted to insubordination — but acknowledged that he never asked his deputy’s opinion on the matter, or on Mr. Mikulan’s performance.
“I don’t have time to ask who, what, when of everything that’s going on inside of a jail, sir,” he replied in court.
The warden also acknowledged that he had never described Mr. Mikulan’s behavior as insubordinate in any jail document — nor read such a description, either.
Since his firing, Mr. Mikulan testified, he hasn’t been able to find another job in corrections, nor an “equal job” more generally. After collecting unemployment he worked briefly as a college safety officer and then as a school security guard until 2016, when he opted to trigger Social Security since it paid more than the job. He’d still happily work, he told jurors, if it pays “a decent wage.”
Mr. Harper, meanwhile, remains warden of the Allegheny County Bureau of Corrections.
» Read an excerpt of Mr. Harper’s testimony about why he fired Mr. Mikulan
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Mikulan v. Allegheny County. 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.
During this case, Mr. Mikulan was represented by The Law Offices of Timothy P. O’Brien and Stember Cohn & Davidson-Welling, LLC.