Facing a Bias Complaint, This Bad Boss Used a Café Surveillance Cam to Get His Accuser Fired
Yes, Tim Pruitt took a half-sandwich from the work cafeteria without paying for it.
But, no, he later testified, he did not steal that sandwich — his friend had paid for it ahead of time, as the friend confirmed under oath.
And yes, he failed to record a few hours properly on a time card — but it was an error made in haste, he testified, to which he had admitted as soon as he was notified.
Regardless, Mr. Pruitt was fired for these seemingly minor offenses by his boss at Genentech, Inc., Steven Graeff, who had been watching Mr. Pruitt extra-closely ever since the African American help desk technician reported him for unfair treatment, according to testimony.
To support the termination, Mr. Graeff teamed up with Mr. Pruitt’s former boss Daniel Williams — who also had been accused of racial bias by Mr. Pruitt, and who was a close work friend of Mr. Graeff — to ask Genentech’s security officer to pull video surveillance tapes of Mr. Pruitt’s movements, both men testified.
The two men confronted Mr. Pruitt with the accusations together, even though Mr. Williams had “no good reason” to be present, in the words of a judge who reviewed the matter, and Mr. Pruitt was quickly marched out of the California biotech company, where he had worked for 21 years, by a guard.
Steven Graeff is our new Bad Boss of the Month.
Mr. Pruitt filed a lawsuit against Genentech, claiming unlawful discrimination and retaliation, among other things. A federal judge allowed the retaliation-related claims to proceed and, in mid-2019, a jury awarded the fired employee nearly $235,000 in damages. An appeal was filed, but the case recently ended in a settlement.
For most of his two decades at Genentech, Mr. Pruitt testified, his experience had been positive. Raised with 10 siblings in a modest household in nearby Benicia, Calif., he earned an associate’s degree locally and was proud to have risen to earn more than $100,000 a year. He viewed Genentech as a “great company,” he told the jury, and he built friendships there that extended outside of work. He took vacations with colleagues to Athens, to see the 2004 Olympics, and to Brazil, to see the 2014 World Cup. His daughter got a job at the company, too.
Mr. Pruitt had started out as a contractor for the Bay Area company. In 1998 he was hired full-time and became the first IT employee to work at Genentech’s manufacturing facility in Vacaville, Calif., where he earned positive performance reviews for years. Mr. Williams was his manager for much of this time — and in 2012, according to testimony, he became the subject of Mr. Pruitt’s first discrimination complaint after writing a “performance counseling document” that Mr. Pruitt felt treated him differently than white employees.
Genentech cleared Mr. Williams, who is white, of racial bias. But it also instructed him to amend the counseling document, according to court filings. Mr. Williams followed up with a performance evaluation that was the lowest of Mr. Pruitt’s career — an act that Mr. Pruitt viewed as retaliatory, especially considering the awards he had received that year, he said in a court filing.
Mr. Williams ultimately moved to another position at Vacaville and Genentech hired Mr. Graeff, who also is white, to replace him. The two managers quickly became tight, eating lunch together two or three times a week, Mr. Graeff said in court. For the remainder of Mr. Pruitt’s time at Genentech, Mr. Williams kept popping up at key moments — despite being outside Mr. Pruitt’s chain of command.
Mr. Williams “is like Forrest Gump, only nefarious as far as we’re concerned,” one of Mr. Pruitt’s lawyers said at a hearing in the case.
At first, Mr. Pruitt told the jury, he was excited that Mr. Williams had been replaced by Mr. Graeff: “You know — new ideas, new manager.” Before long, however, he found that Mr. Graeff was watching his every move, according to testimony. The new manager would hover around Mr. Pruitt, track his breaks, and examine his time cards closely, a level of attention that Mr. Graeff didn’t undertake for white workers, according to court filings.
After being denied a promotion, Mr. Pruitt complained to Genentech’s employee relations department about unfair treatment. Soon afterward, he testified, Mr. Graeff started raising issues about time card inaccuracy. In a one-on-one meeting with the manager, Mr. Pruitt complained of feeling singled out, he told jurors, and Mr. Graeff reacted by being “very rude” to him. Stressed out, Mr. Pruitt began seeing a therapist and took an approved leave for depression and anxiety.
Mr. Pruitt wasn’t the only person feeling bias from Mr. Graeff. In a deposition, a contractor of Afghani national origin said he sometimes drove home “crying all the way” because Mr. Graeff had treated him abusively while questioning every aspect of his time card reports.
“I was afraid to even go to lunch,” testified Humayon Sarwari. “I brought food from home all the time, because I didn’t even want to go to the cafeteria, because when he’d see me [Mr. Graeff would say,] ‘What are you doing here?'” According to Mr. Sarwari, Mr. Graeff never acted this way toward white workers, who saw him as an “awesome guy.”
“He was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Mr. Sarwari testified.
(Jurors didn’t hear from Mr. Sarwari or some other witnesses because the judge focused the trial on events in June and July 2016 that might count as retaliation against Mr. Pruitt.)
Not long after Mr. Pruitt returned from his medical leave, he complained again to Genentech about Mr. Graeff’s behavior — this time explicitly labeling it as race discrimination. Genentech opened an investigation but didn’t interview Mr. Pruitt, according to court documents.
About a month later, on July 13, 2016, with the investigation still under way, Mr. Graeff sent Mr. Pruitt to work for a day at Genentech’s nearby office in Dixon, Calif., to cover for an employee who was out. Mr. Pruitt later told jurors that he left Dixon at lunchtime to pick up a prescription back in Vacaville — he suffers from glaucoma and was in pain — and was late returning because of traffic. He then left the Dixon office early because he was still feeling ill. He checked to ensure there were no important tasks pending, and he informed the site administrator, he testified.
Mr. Graeff, meanwhile, had decided to visit the Dixon facility that very afternoon. He asked Mr. Williams to come along with him — to make an introduction to an official whom he hadn’t yet met, he testified. (Mr. Graeff had been working at Genentech for about a year by now, according to filings.) He stopped by Mr. Pruitt’s desk and found him gone.
Mr. Graeff didn’t call Mr. Pruitt’s cellphone to get an explanation, nor did he tell Mr. Pruitt the next day, when they both were working in Vacaville, that he had failed to find him at Dixon. Instead, he told jurors, he waited another day and — while Mr. Pruitt was out — called the Dixon facility to ask for surveillance video so that he could clock Mr. Pruitt’s comings and goings.
As it turned out, Mr. Pruitt hadn’t yet filed a time card for the week in question. He believed he had done so, he testified, but it never registered in the system. (He had been having a technical issue, which he had previously reported to Genentech people including Mr. Graeff.) When Mr. Pruitt returned to work after the weekend, Mr. Graeff ordered him to file his card immediately. Mr. Pruitt complied within minutes — but in his haste he entered his standard hours for the day at Dixon, he testified, rather than reflecting the time he had missed.
Mr. Graeff didn’t discuss this discrepancy with his employee for almost two weeks, he acknowledged in court, until the day Mr. Pruitt was escorted from the building.
Then, on July 21, came the half-sandwich incident.
Mr. Pruitt had arranged to meet a friend, Thomas Barillaro, in the Genentech cafeteria. At a deposition, Mr. Barillaro testified that he paid for Mr. Pruitt’s lunch in advance, as he often did — but that Mr. Pruitt was delayed, so he left and assumed that Mr. Pruitt would pick up his pre-paid BLT later.
And indeed, on that day Mr. Pruitt walked into the cafeteria, got a half-sandwich, and walked out without paying. Unluckily for Mr. Pruitt, Mr. Graeff was in the cafeteria at the time — he was waiting for Mr. Williams, he testified — and saw the incident. He believed he had seen Mr. Pruitt stealing and, as Mr. Pruitt’s lawyer described it in court, the manager’s videotaped reaction resembled “a little victory dance.”
Once more Mr. Graeff didn’t ask Mr. Pruitt to explain himself. Instead, after lunch, he and Mr. Williams went to the Vacaville security office and asked for surveillance tape of the incident — which they later watched together with an employee relations representative, according to testimony.
A security specialist named Javier Vargaz dug a bit deeper, interviewing the cafeteria cashier on the same day as the incident. According to a declaration filed in the case, the cashier confirmed that an unknown “friend” had paid for Mr. Pruitt’s food that day. But the cashier’s account didn’t exactly match the video and, according to the document filed by Genentech, Mr. Vargaz concluded that the cashier must have been recollecting a separate incident “at some other time” than shown on the tape.
Throughout this time, Mr. Graeff had been communicating with the Genentech official responsible for investigating Mr. Pruitt’s claim of discrimination against him — and feeding the investigator, at the same time, his allegations of Mr. Pruitt’s own wrongdoing, according to testimony. No one informed Mr. Pruitt that he was under a cloud, however, or asked for his side of the story.
On July 25, Genentech informed Mr. Graeff (but not Mr. Pruitt) that the discrimination probe was over, and that the manager had been cleared. Mr. Graeff immediately made plans to put Mr. Pruitt on administrative leave — a likely prelude to firing — based on the time card and sandwich incidents, according to testimony.
The following day, Mr. Pruitt arrived at his desk to find a new meeting with Mr. Graeff on his calendar. He walked to Mr. Graeff’s office, only to be led to a small conference room where — to his surprise — Mr. Williams was waiting. When Mr. Pruitt expressed confusion about why Mr. Williams was present, he testified, Mr. Graeff said his friend was there to “help answer questions.”
In the event, Mr. Graeff, a former military police officer, did the speaking. He revealed that Mr. Pruitt had filed an incorrect time card for the day at Dixon — something Mr. Pruitt quickly acknowledged as a mistake — and also said that Mr. Pruitt had been caught on tape stealing a sandwich. It was the first time the employee had heard either accusation.
Flustered at Mr. Williams’ presence and Mr. Graeff’s hostile tone, Mr. Pruitt told the men he had paid for the sandwich before he even knew what day Mr. Graeff was talking about — a response that Genentech cited repeatedly as a “lie” at trial.
“I was very nervous and uncomfortable,” he told jurors. “And basically, I just knew [that] no matter what I said, it wouldn’t matter at that point.”
Mr. Pruitt was placed on leave, escorted out of the building, and shown to his car. Later that day, in a call with Genentech employee relations, he learned that his race discrimination complaint against Mr. Graeff had been closed, according to court documents.
The following day, Mr. Pruitt told jurors, Mr. Graeff called him at home to fire him officially — but first, he said, the manager noted that “he was putting me on speakerphone because Dan Williams was there with him also.”
After dropping the hammer, Mr. Graeff started to explain some logistical matters. A distraught Mr. Pruitt simply hung up. “I started crying,” he told the jury, “and I didn’t want [them] to hear that.”
Mr. Pruitt was 54 at the time he was fired and banned from Genentech’s facilities. He continues to look for a new job, he told jurors, but he is constrained by his age, his two-year degree, and his ongoing health problems. In 2017 his glaucoma finally caused him to lose vision in his left eye, he said, and back pain limits how far he can commute.
At trial his partner testified that the formerly social Mr. Pruitt became subdued and despondant after the firing, and saw his friends much less often. He couldn’t sleep properly anymore, she said, and now gets up several times a night to pace around the house. He continues to see a therapist and take anti-anxiety medication, according to testimony.
Mr. Pruitt did feel “great” when he got one temporary job, he said in court, but that position expired after four months and he returned to fruitless job-hunting. “I almost feel like I don’t have a life,” he said. His partner has taken a part-time retail job to help make ends meet, even though she had previously retired, he testified.
In court last year, jury members never learned of Mr. Pruitt’s explanation for the sandwich incident, since the judge had ruled it irrelevant to his specific retaliation claims. They didn’t hear Mr. Barillaro’s testimony that he had paid for his friend, or that the cafeteria cashier had confirmed the story — albeit with different details — before the firing. Instead, Genentech emphasized Mr. Pruitt’s “lie” about paying.
Nonetheless, the jury found that Mr. Pruitt’s termination was unlawfully based on his discrimination complaint against Mr. Graeff, and awarded him damages for past economic loss and emotional distress. He received no provision for ongoing harm, however, and in his appeal his attorneys said the trial judge had unfairly kept some matters out of the jury’s hands.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ordered the case into mediation, where the parties reached an undisclosed settlement. The matter was dismissed in November 2019.
» Read Mr. Pruitt’s complaint (originally filed in state court)
» Read the declaration of Javier Vargaz, the Genentech employee who quizzed the cafeteria cashier
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Pruitt v. Genentech, 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.
Mr. Pruitt was represented in this case by the McHenry Law Firm and Levy, Vinick, Burrell, Hyams.