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This Husband and Wife Teamed Up to Become Our First-Ever Joint Bad Bosses

For Justin Driskell and several of his co-workers, the construction site in Charlotte, N.C., seemed “hellish”: Working for Summit Contracting Group, Inc. under a tight deadline, their crew labored without safety equipment, put in exhausting hours, and suffered under a superintendent who drank at lunch and had fits of rage, Mr. Driskell testified in court proceedings.

After a run-in with the superintendent, Mr. Driskell complained about the man’s drinking to Summit’s chief executive, Marc Padgett; Mr. Driskell’s father Tom, who also worked for Summit, echoed his son’s safety concerns to both Mr. Padgett and his wife Nicole, the company’s top administrative officer, according to testimony.

The Padgetts, who live in Jacksonville, Fla., reacted curiously: They somehow figured that the Driskells might be plotting against Summit, Nicole Padgett testified.

Still, the couple agreed to send a senior employee to the work site to investigate. The employee testified that he took the superintendent out for lunch, bought him a beer, and later wrote Mr. Padgett an e-mail with his verdict: The younger Mr. Driskell just needed to “grow a pair of balls.”

Mr. Padgett replied that he agreed.

About a day later, Justin Driskell came across the superintendent after hours, drinking in a parking lot with a co-worker. The men talked, got into a shoving match — and then, according to the co-worker’s testimony, the supervisor punched Mr. Driskell, slammed him onto the concrete, and told him he was fired.

Mr. Driskell ended up in the emergency room.

The Padgetts’ response, according to testimony: They laughed off Mr. Driskell’s injuries; portrayed him as the aggressor, despite an eyewitness account to the contrary; refused to answer his calls about returning to work; “accepted” a resignation that Mr. Driskell said he never tendered; and awarded the violent superintendent a larger-than-expected bonus at the end of the project.

Marc and Nicole Padgett are our first-ever joint Bad Bosses of the Month.

Justin Driskell filed a lawsuit against Florida-based Summit, claiming wrongful termination and retaliation, among other things. Earlier this year a federal jury sided with the construction worker, awarding him more than $750,000 in damages, an amount that will likely be modified after the resolution of post-trial motions. An appeal has been filed.

The Padgetts are a power couple in Jacksonville, where Summit is headquartered and where they’re building a flashy house. Summit, founded in its current form by Marc Padgett in 2007, has built more than 100,000 units across more than 30 states; in 2018, the National Multifamily Housing Council ranked it as the top apartment builder in the U.S. Nicole started at Summit as an accounting temp; she became chief administrative officer in 2009 and married Marc Padgett in 2013, according to testimony. In a recent article she describes herself as someone with “a really big mouth” who doesn’t “back down from a fight.”

Site safety was a delicate subject at Summit, where an unsatisfactory update could draw a tirade from Ms. Padgett: She read an e-mail aloud in court in which she carped that too many accidents were being reported to government regulators and called the end result “A F***ING NIGHTMARE!!!”

It was in this environment that Mr. Driskell complained to Mr. Padgett about dangerous practices at the Charlotte project — including the drinking and temper of Dan Rhyner, the project’s superintendent, according to testimony.

At trial, Mr. Padgett and Mr. Driskell offered differing versions of an initial phone call between them: Mr. Padgett told jurors that alcohol wasn’t mentioned, while Mr. Driskell insisted that he warned the Padgetts that Mr. Rhyner was drinking during daytime and might do “something stupid” on the site.

In a separate call by the elder Mr. Driskell to Mr. Padgett, overheard by Ms. Padgett while she sat on a recliner beside her husband, Mr. Rhyner’s drinking was discussed — and the Padgetts began to suspect that the Driskells were somehow setting up a lawsuit. The Summit leaders even went so far as to consult an attorney, Ms. Padgett testified.

“I can’t recall every item that [made] me have that suspicion,” Ms. Padgett said in a deposition.

At any rate, the man sent by the Padgetts to investigate the Charlotte site never took urine tests or found much to report besides Justin Driskell’s supposed lack of manhood: Upon hearing about Mr. Rhyner’s drinking, Mr. Driskell testified, the Summit employee simply shrugged that “nobody is perfect.”

“He just told me to shut my mouth … and let it go,” Mr. Driskell said in a deposition.

It was tough to move on, however, since the superintendent now knew that Mr. Driskell had reported him to the Padgetts, according to testimony.

The two men’s confrontation followed in short order. The next evening, Mr. Driskell arrived at the parking lot of the hotel where many Summit workers were staying and encountered Mr. Rhyner drinking beer with Bristen Breaux, a friend of Mr. Driskell. They invited him to join them, but Mr. Rhyner already was “wobbly” from beer and his simmering anger quickly rose to violence, according to Mr. Driskell’s testimony.

At trial, Mr. Breaux told jurors that he didn’t see who started the tussle. However, he said Mr. Driskell only shielded himself from blows and didn’t throw punches even as he was being pounded on the ground. When Mr. Driskell stood up and tried to backpedal away, Mr. Breaux added, Mr. Rhyner pursued him.

A flurry of phone calls and e-mails followed the fight, including an e-mail from Mr. Driskell to Mr. Padgett with a photo that showed his bloodied face. Mr. Driskell went to the hospital, where an E.R. doctor found displaced cartilage around his throat and swelling around his eye, according to court documents.

Mr. Driskell also reported the incident to local police.

Mr. Rhyner, who claimed that he was the victim, didn’t seek medical attention; instead he drove home to Nashville, Tenn., six hours away.

The morning after the fight, the Padgetts began constructing their own version of what happened — and put the blame squarely on Mr. Driskell. In an e-mail included in court records, Ms. Padgett instructed a Summit official to file a human resources report saying that “Dan was attacked by Justin,” and that Mr. Driskell suffered “no bodily damage whatsoever other than a superficial scratch” caused by losing his balance due to alcohol.

This contradicted the statements of Mr. Driskell and Mr. Breaux, which were taken immediately after the fight by a Summit manager in Charlotte, according to the manager’s testimony. Even after being informed of this, however, Ms. Padgett sent a further e-mail — also filed in court — asking the H.R. official to make a police report naming Mr. Driskell as the aggressor.

Later the Padgetts asked Mr. Breaux to supply a new account of the fight — a statement that, as Mr. Breaux admitted at trial, omitted several notable points, including Mr. Rhyner’s angry firing of Mr. Driskell as the men parted, which didn’t fit Summit’s assertion that Mr. Driskell had quit.

Based on her own testimony, Ms. Padgett wasn’t a stranger to shading the truth: In a legal dispute with a different Summit employee, she recounted via an e-mail she read aloud to jurors, she asked a company to backdate a letter about its problems with that employee “so it doesn’t look like we got the letter after we received the notice of the hearing.”

Her husband’s approving response, which Ms. Padgett also read aloud: “He is such a piece of sh*t. You were right. … I love you.”

As for Mr. Driskell, he testified that he never quit Summit — and that he absolutely wanted to continue working for the construction company.

“I had bills to pay,” he said. “I couldn’t just walk away.”

Nonetheless, the Padgetts instructed their managers not to take his calls about returning to work; ultimately Ms. Padgett, after speaking with an attorney, asked a Summit official to tell Mr. Driskell that “we accept your resignation,” according to testimony.

Mr. Rhyner, the supervisor, returned to the worksite and finished the project a few weeks later. Mr. Padgett was asked to review the recommended bonus schedule for the crew: He boosted Mr. Rhyner’s payout by 25% beyond the suggested level, according to testimony, and gave an extra 30% to Mr. Breaux, who had tweaked his account of the fight.

Meanwhile, Mr. Driskell found himself shut out of the construction industry; he took a job at Terminix. In court documents he told of depression and recurring nightmares; family members called him a changed man — a “recluse,” according to his father.

The Padgetts maintain their high social standing in Jacksonville, where both are involved in directing city development. Their new property, on a bluff overlooking the St. Johns River, will boast a 16,000-square-foot mansion with six bedrooms and a two-story closet; two guest houses; an infinity pool; and a view of nearby Dames Point Bridge, where they got engaged.

» See a photo of Justin Driskell after the fight
» Read Mr. Driskell’s original complaint, which was filed in state court

The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Driskell v. Summit Contracting Group, 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.

During this case, Mr. Driskell was represented by Van Kampen Law, P.C.

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