This Bad Boss Fired a Survivor of Throat Cancer After Hearing How He Spoke Post-Surgery
For Troy Coachman, working as finance director for a Mercedes-Benz dealership meant he had reached “the pinnacle of the car industry.”
And by all accounts the sharp-dressed Mr. Coachman excelled at his job, which was to persuade luxury-car purchasers to buy extra products and protections as he did their paperwork. “One of the best,” is how Al Monjazeb, the owner of Mercedes-Benz of Seattle — and Mr. Coachman’s former boss — described him at trial.
So why did Mr. Monjazeb fire his star employee, as he testified he did?
In 2014, shortly after receiving a promotion and more than six years after joining the dealership, the 50-year-old Mr. Coachman was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx, or voice box. Surgeons eventually removed his larynx and vocal cords and inserted a voice prosthesis — a device that allowed him to speak, albeit in a different voice, by activating a button at his throat.
Near the end of that year, after weathering several medical setbacks, Mr. Coachman was preparing to return to work from a period of unpaid leave. He visited the Mercedes dealership, where he ran into Mr. Monjazeb. It was the first time the men had met since Mr. Coachman’s surgery and, according to testimony, Mr. Monjazeb was taken aback by his employee’s still-healing stoma — the opening in his neck that allowed him to breathe — and also by his overall appearance and a voice that Mr. Monjazeb described at trial as “whisper-like” and hard to understand.
Mr. Coachman testified that he was on “voice rest” at the time, to allow his throat to finish healing.
The dealership’s former general manager, who had scheduled Mr. Coachman’s return, said at trial that Mr. Monjazeb told him that high-end Mercedes customers might be “bothered” by Mr. Coachman’s stoma and altered speech. Mr. Monjazeb instructed the GM to stop talking with Mr. Coachman and to let him handle the matter instead, the GM testified.
Not long after, Mr. Monjazeb fired Mr. Coachman via e-mail.
Al Monjazeb is our new Bad Boss of the Month.
Mr. Coachman filed a lawsuit against the dealership and against Mr. Monjazeb personally, claiming violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and also a Washington State law against discrimination. After a seven-day trial in late 2018, a federal jury sided unanimously with Mr. Coachman and awarded him nearly $5 million in damages — an outcome that’s now under appeal at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, where it will likely be argued this winter.
Until he was fired, Troy Coachman’s successful work life had provided a welcome contrast to his traumatic family background. Raised by an abusive single mother who had “a lot of boyfriends” and walked around their low-income duplex home “butt-naked,” according to the testimony of a childhood friend, Mr. Coachman told the court he was rejected by a father who didn’t accept his son’s homosexuality, and that he also became estranged from his twin brother.
Mr. Coachman escaped into work at an early age, the friend testified, progressing quickly up the ladder at Taco Time restaurants, moving into banking, and finally finding his calling in auto sales and financing. When he first got the opportunity to represent the Mercedes-Benz brand, she said, “I noticed this new glow to him. It was like he was on top of the world.”
Another friend told the court: “Given his childhood, I think Mercedes … was a statement for him as to where he came from — and where he was now.”
Known for his strong bonds with customers, his smart suits, and his wide selection of ties, Mr. Coachman also earned a reputation for great financial results. At Mr. Monjazeb’s luxe dealership he performed at nearly twice the level of his peers, according to deposition testimony from Jason Graham, the dealership’s former GM.
Little surprise, then, that Mr. Graham wanted Mr. Coachman to return to work after his cancer surgery — and that he was mulling how to shuffle staff assignments to make it happen, according to testimony.
Mr. Graham told the court that he scheduled the cancer survivor’s return for January 2, 2015, a date blessed by Mr. Coachman’s doctor, even though the GM wasn’t sure what position Mr. Coachman would initially fill, given his still-developing mastery of the voice prosthesis. And Mr. Monjazeb seemed fine with that plan, Mr. Graham testified, until a meeting in which the “very upset” owner suddenly asserted he had never said the finance director could come back — a statement Mr. Graham said was false.
“Al told [me and another manager] just to leave it alone,” he told jurors. “He was going to take care of it, and to stay out of it.”
Mr. Coachman now needed to meet with Mr. Monjazeb so the owner could judge his ability to work, he was told — even though, as Mr. Monjazeb admitted in a deposition, the owner’s brief single encounter with Mr. Coachman had already convinced him that there was “no way” he could do his job.
“After that last meeting …,” he testified, “my brain knew that he can’t come back.”
In any event, the men never met. Mr. Monjazeb said he was too busy — and then, after Mr. Coachman pressed his desire to return, Mr. Monjazeb ended his employment, saying that the dealership had filled his position, according to court documents. Mr. Monjazeb asked an HR person to do the deed on his behalf, via e-mail, and acknowledged in court that Mr. Coachman was fired because of his voice.
Mr. Graham told jurors he wasn’t consulted about Mr. Coachman’s termination, and didn’t believe it made sense.
“Normally, when an employee is returning from a health issue,” the former GM testified, “you find some type of position they — I guess reasonable accommodation for whatever is going on with their health.” Firing Mr. Coachman rather than somehow easing him back into the dealership, he said, “never crossed my mind.”
At trial, Mr. Coachman recounted his shock and humiliation over the “callous” e-mail.
“I was really disappointed in … how they handled the situation with me,” he testified. “I am different — obviously, look at me. I sound different. Yes, my tone is off a little bit, but it’s still me. I am still Troy. … All I wanted was a chance to be able to prove that I could do my job.”
What’s more, Mr. Coachman told the court, his self-funded disability insurance policy had just stopped paying benefits because his doctor had certified his ability to work — so suddenly he had no source of income.
“I was crushed for him,” his childhood friend testified. “I mean, … all that man knows is work.”
Mr. Coachman quickly snagged a temporary, lesser-paying job at a nearby Subaru dealership, filling in for someone who was taking an extended vacation to Australia. He went through a normal hiring process, according to testimony, with no red flags raised about his voice or his ability to perform.
Just a month after being fired by Mr. Monjazeb, Mr. Coachman began working on the Subaru sales floor to familiarize himself with the brand, then switched to his accustomed finance position.
“Customers loved him,” Wendy Borgert, who managed Mr. Coachman directly in his finance role, recalled in testimony. “He did great … he was actually number one in my department. He had the highest warranty penetration; highest dollar per car; no customer complaints; very, very minimal charge-backs. I mean, he did great.”
In the meantime, Mr. Coachman had lawyered up. In an exchange of letters via their respective attorneys, Mr. Monjazeb ended up offering Mr. Coachman his old job back — but again insisted on meeting his former employee before setting a start date.
“I still would have had to made sure that his communication levels were OK,” Mr. Monjazeb explained in a deposition — although, at trial, he claimed he wanted only “an ordinary conversation I would have with any employees coming on board.”
Mr. Coachman, who was still working at Subaru at the time, declined. The offer was just a reaction to his legal representation, he testified.
“Why did anybody think that I would go back to a place like that,” he asked the court, “after over and over being told, ‘Oh, take your time, take your time’ — and then I get ready to come back and … I’m fired? … I just didn’t feel safe going back.”
Mr. Coachman finished his Subaru stint and soon afterward, sadly, learned that his cancer had metastasized to his lungs. Within a few months he was totally disabled, according to court documents, and his treatment triggered a further condition known as chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy, which prevented him from working. Since he could no longer afford payments on the house he had owned for 14 years, he sold it and moved 50 miles south of Seattle to a mobile home.
The sociable Mr. Coachman told jurors that he stopped having parties and inviting people over. The emotional impact, he testified, was severe — but he “never thought thought I wasn’t going to beat it, especially the third time.”
At trial, Mr. Coachman said he remains on therapy for cancer but “I’m two-and-a-half years no recurrence, so I feel great. … I’m lucky to be sitting here.”
Just a few weeks before the trial, he started his first job since the temporary Subaru gig, working as a finance director for Larson Automotive Group in Tacoma, Wash.
“Are you happy to be back at work?” he was asked in court.
“You have no idea,” he answered.
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Coachman v. Seattle Auto Management, 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.