This Bad Boss Pushed His Tourette-Suffering Employee Toward a Health Crisis.
Working almost 100 hours in a week is a lot. For Brian Bell, it proved overwhelming.
Mr. Bell’s disabilities — from depression to Tourette Syndrome — hadn’t previously affected his strong performance as a store manager at O’Reilly Auto Parts in Belfast, Maine, according to a lawsuit he later filed. His Tourette’s tics, which manifested as a body jerk and a squeaking sound, were limited to just ten a day via medication.
But when an O’Reilly district manager, Chris Watters, denied his requests for extra help to cover a staff shortage, Mr. Bell was suddenly forced to double his own work hours, he testified. Even after adjusting his meds, his symptoms began to escalate under the stress and exhaustion.
Mr. Bell was near a breaking point, he told a jury, but Mr. Watters — who was partly responsible for the labor emergency, according to testimony — refused his pleas to offer overtime to other store workers or to borrow staff from nearby O’Reilly locations.
By the start of his seventh 15-hour day, Mr. Bell’s tics became almost constant. Other symptoms were cropping up, too, including severe headaches and pain in a previously injured knee. He ducked into the parking lot for a quick break, which didn’t violate any rules — only for Mr. Watters, who had been tipped off by a neighboring store manager, to call Mr. Bell’s cellphone and order him back to work immediately, according to testimony.
Ultimately, a medical provider stepped in and helped the beleaguered Mr. Bell to take some leave and request a disability accommodation that would shield him from excessive schedules in the future. Mr. Watters said he couldn’t make such a guarantee to an O’Reilly store manager, however, a jury heard at trial.
The district manager’s counteroffer: A demotion to a different location that would cut Mr. Bell’s pay in half while tripling his commute.
Chris Watters is our latest Bad Boss of the Month.
Mr. Bell filed a lawsuit against O’Reilly in 2016 under the Maine Human Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, resulting in two trials in federal court — the second a redo after the first was compromised by faulty jury instructions. In October 2021, the second jury awarded Mr. Bell more than $850,000 in damages, an amount that was affirmed last month by the trial judge.
O’Reilly will contest the outcome, according to court filings.
Mr. Bell was diagnosed with Tourette’s at 16. As with most sufferers, the disorder wasn’t very disruptive — nothing like some lurid media portrayals. His body would occasionally twitch and a squeal-like sound would escape, he told jurors, which might unnerve onlookers who didn’t expect it. With medication, he kept it under good control.
He had previously been diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety, which often accompany Tourette’s, and developed major depressive disorder a few years later. Nonetheless, jurors heard, he thrived. He was an honor student throughout college , even while enduring multiple surgeries for a lacrosse-injured knee. After graduating with a degree in business administration and marketing, he started working in the auto industry.
By 2014, Mr. Bell had earned several Automotive Service Excellence certifications and four years of managerial experience. He joined O’Reilly as its Belfast store manager, bringing the location into profitability for the first time in its history — and logging performance improvements every month, according to testimony. His disabilities were widely known at work, he said, including the Tourette’s, but didn’t require any accommodation.
Meanwhile, as district manager, Mr. Watters oversaw several stores in the area. He visited the Belfast store almost every week and spoke with Mr. Bell almost daily; at trial, he admitted having noticed Mr. Bell’s tics.
They clashed early on. Apparently due to a miscommunication, Mr. Watters wrote up Mr. Bell for failing to work full shifts. According to court documents, Mr. Watters called the behavior — which Mr. Bell denied — “a personal insult.”
Certainly the men had different management styles. According to documents, Mr. Bell wanted to go easy on several employees who faced personal challenges, while Mr. Watters pushed to fire them. In one instance, Mr. Bell said in a court document that wasn’t seen by jurors, Mr. Watters seemed to suggest framing an underperformer for theft.
“I do not care if you put a stereo in his personal vehicle and then find it while walking him out to his car,” Mr. Bell said he was told by Mr. Watters.
At trial, Mr. Bell skipped such details but painted Mr. Watters as a caustic authoritarian. “I think that he believed that the ends justified the means,” he testified. “[A]t the end of the day, you had two ways of doing things, and that was his way or out.”
In May 2015, one of Mr. Watters’ firings coincided with an unrelated resignation to create a sudden staff shortage in the Belfast store, according to testimony. Some of the remaining employees were able to work overtime, Mr. Bell told jurors, but Mr. Watters refused to authorize the expenditure — or to borrow workers from a nearby store.
While he scrambled to find new employees, Mr. Bell had to fill the gap himself. He began working 15 hours a day, from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., he testified, and his health took a downward turn.
Mr. Bell’s tics became more frequent and more painful, he told the jury. Standing in the store for long hours also worsened the lingering injury to his knee, he said, and he started to experience headaches and dizziness.
By June 4, he was struggling. He had told Mr. Watters he was burning out, he testified — and Mr. Watters had witnessed his troubles while on a store visit — but no help was forthcoming. Having worked about 90 hours in the past week, he was exhausted and trembling.
According to court documents, Mr. Bell opened the store that day, waited for his staff to arrive, and then went out to his truck to gather himself. His tics were coming with barely a pause. Like other O’Reilly employees, Mr. Bell was entitled to 90 minutes of break time each day; at trial, Mr. Watters agreed that store managers can take this time at their discretion.
Nonetheless, Mr. Watters called Mr. Bell’s cellphone after just 15 minutes.
According to court documents, the district manager had been tipped off by a non-O’Reilly person who worked nearby; Mr. Watters said it was “outrageous” for Mr. Bell to be taking a break and told him to “get [his] ass back in the store now.”
Mr. Bell felt “defeated,” he told jurors, and complied.
A little later, in desperation, he went over Mr. Watters’ head and got permission to leave the store and seek immediate medical help, according to court documents.
Mr. Bell’s healthcare provider, a psychiatric nurse practitioner named Judy Weitzel, insisted that he take a few days off: Coupled with the overwork, his higher medication doses had nearly sent him to the hospital, she said.
Ms. Weitzel also helped Mr. Bell to fill out an O’Reilly form that requested a new accommodation for his disabilities — specifically, that his scheduled hours be limited to 45 hours a week, roughly the average amount he had worked before the staffing emergency. She wrote a cover note offering to answer any questions.
At trial, Mr. Watters admitted initial doubts about Mr. Bell’s disability claims. Although he had noticed the tics, he testified, he didn’t know about any mental health issues. According to court documents, his first response was, “Who will be closing your store?”
Furthermore, O’Reilly lawyers told the court, Mr. Watters misinterpreted Mr. Bell’s accommodation request: He believed that 45 hours was a hard weekly maximum — when in fact, both Ms. Weitzel and Mr. Bell allowed some flexibility for unexpected events.
Mr. Watters never contacted Ms. Weitzel, according to court documents. Instead, according to court documents, he concluded that Mr. Bell couldn’t be accommodated while remaining as an O’Reilly store manager. He offered him a lower position as Shift Lead in a different town, which would increase Mr. Bell’s daily commute while slicing his yearly earnings of $42,000 by half.
Mr. Bell realized the misunderstanding and tried to explain it to Mr. Watters but got nowhere, he testified. He even contacted O’Reilly’s HR department and offered to be demoted to assistant manager in the Belfast store, if that would solve matters, but got no official reply.
Meanwhile, at Mr. Watters’ request, he was staying away from work while negotiations ground on.
In July, Mr. Watters offered him a position as Parts Specialist in Belfast at $10 per hour, according to court documents — again, roughly half Mr. Bell’s existing salary. Mr. Bell responded by email, once more clarifying his accommodation request to Mr. Watters and to O’Reilly HR — and asking why he hadn’t been contacted about an assistant manager job that he heard had recently opened up in Belfast.
On August 5, Mr. Watters made him a take-it-or-leave-it offer: The Belfast assistant manager position for $10 per hour. Mr. Bell was troubled: Comparable non-disabled assistant managers got between $11 and $13, he said in court filings. Indeed, he testified, Mr. Watters had recently approved an offer of $13.50 per hour to hire someone with less managerial experience and fewer industry certifications than Mr. Bell.
Mr. Watters had given Mr. Bell just two days to respond or face termination, according to court documents. Mr. Bell asked for a better pay rate but got no immediate reply. His mental health, already precarious, continued to plummet; at trial, an expert witness said he became suicidal and was often bedridden.
His wife Natalie described Mr. Bell to jurors as disconnected, confused, and hurt during this period. In the car together one day, she testified, Mr. Bell asked her if she’d ever thought about just driving into a ditch. At his request, she removed all firearms and ammunition from the house.
“I texted him every hour on the hour just checking in, making sure he was okay and still there,” she testified.
About two months after his request to be paid more than $10 an hour as an assistant manager, Mr. Bell came to realize that he’d been fired when he received a letter from O’Reilly explaining his right to pay for a continuation of health benefits.
Mr. Bell sued in 2016. His first trial ended in defeat, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit found errors and ordered a do-over. Late last year, the second trial ended in his favor: A federal jury awarded him $42,000 in back pay, $75,000 in compensatory damages, and $750,000 in punitive damages.
Mr. Watters stepped down as regional manager in 2016 and ultimately left O’Reilly in June 2018, shortly before the first trial, according to his LinkedIn profile.
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Bell v. O’Reilly Auto Enterprises, LLC, d/b/a O’Reilly Auto Parts. 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. Bell was represented by Maine Employment Rights Group.