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.
» Read Mr. Bell’s first amended complaint in the case
» Read the email complaint Mr. Bell sent to O’Reilly’s HR department
» Read the order from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit
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.
On Paper, This Pastor Was an Anti-Harassment Coordinator. The Reality Was a Bit Different.
Titles meant a lot to Anita Bralock: She had worked hard for hers.
After serving as a registered nurse since 1982, she earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in nursing so she could teach other medical professionals, eventually rising to department chair at a university just outside Los Angeles. When she was recruited by the Christian-oriented American University of Health Sciences in nearby Signal Hill, Calif., Ms. Bralock believed it was another step upward in her educational career.
Then she got to know Gregory Johnson, the founder of AUHS — a person for whom, according to testimony in a lawsuit filed by Ms. Bralock, titles were less … rigorous.
Mr. Johnson and his wife Kim Dang, a co-founder of AUHS, both went by “doctor,” for example, yet each holds only an honorary degree, the jury heard. Ms. Dang’s degree came from a shadowy school in Liberia; his from an institution that wasn’t stated in court. Neither had any medical training, Mr. Johnson testified.
As AUHS founder, the volatile Mr. Johnson frequently waved aside the school’s titles and hierarchy, Ms. Bralock testified, inserting himself into decisions he was unqualified to make, including student admissions and faculty selection. An independent accreditation group found his operating role at AUHS to be inappropriate, the jury heard.
A pastor whose “Church of Love” focuses on homeless people, Mr. Johnson also served as the federal Title IX coordinator for AUHS — making him responsible for ensuring a non-discriminatory educational environment. But Mr. Johnson himself handed out suggestive materials, inappropriately touched faculty members, exploded in anger, and was the subject of multiple sexual harassment complaints from students, according to court documents.
“I don’t even know what Title IX means,” Mr. Johnson acknowledged in a deposition video that was replayed in court.
Gregory Johnson is our new Bad Boss of the Month.
Ms. Bralock and another administrator began looking into some of the harassment allegations, only to be fired for purportedly unrelated reasons. They filed a lawsuit against Mr. Johnson and AUHS for retaliation, a hostile work environment, and other violations. This past September, a state jury awarded each of them more than $1 million in damages — and declared Mr. Johnson to be “unfit or incompetent” for the operational roles he had held at AUHS. The outcome is being appealed.
By the time of the trial in 2021, Ms. Bralock had devoted nearly four decades of her life to nursing. After starting as an RN, Ms. Bralock trained to become a certified nurse midwife. She then spent years cultivating her academic credentials and, in 1991, began educating others as skilled nurses. According to her testimony, she became a professor and then a department chair at Azusa Pacific University, a Christian-based college. About three years into her tenure, Mr. Johnson came knocking.
At that time, the nursing program at AUHS was still in its infancy. Mr. Johnson and Ms. Dang, a former Vietnamese refugee, had founded AUHS as a vocational school in 1993, when Ms. Dang was just 24. After it got traction, they began developing more advanced programs in pharmacy, clinical research, and — as of 2007 — nursing.
Hired as associate dean for the AUHS nursing school in 2010, Ms. Bralock quickly clashed with the founders. Despite not having graduated from college himself , Mr. Johnson insisted on controlling what he called “his” curriculum, she testified, ignoring the suggestions of faculty and administrators.
When she was promoted to dean the following year, Ms. Bralock gained oversight of the student application process — only to be overruled by Ms. Dang, who forced her to admit candidates who would go on to fail board exams, she told jurors.
Meanwhile Mr. Johnson meddled in hiring, bringing aboard an unqualified faculty member without informing either Ms. Bralock or AUHS’ then-president. He started meeting the young woman behind closed doors, encouraging her to wear revealing outfits and stiletto heels instead of scrubs, Ms. Bralock said in court — adding that the woman, who later accused Mr. Johnson of harassment, told her she feared losing her job if she didn’t comply.
It wasn’t the only example of Mr. Johnson giving unwanted attention to women at AUHS, according to court documents: Another employee accused Mr. Johnson of unwelcome hugging, hair touching, and shoulder massages; at an internal meeting to discuss his behavior, he reached across his wife, Ms. Dang, to stroke the employee’s hair again.
Suggestive talk was common during mandatory, ostensibly religious sessions hosted by Mr. Johnson, jurors heard. One series of meditations was dubbed “Morning Dew,” Ms. Bralock testified, with Mr. Johnson handing out flyers that included, in one case, a scantily clad woman waiting by a window to offer the reader “the favor that God has set before thee.”
At Morning Dew, Mr. Johnson asked employees to repeat and interpret phrases he had written such as “let me move inside you … rise inside you” as he hovered behind each speaker in turn — a practice that felt both uncomfortable and un-Christian , Ms. Bralock testified.
Sexual imagery played a role in AUHS recruitment, too: Mr. Johnson testified that he sought out future students at nearby comic-book conferences, where he took pictures with attendees in risqué costumes, commented on women’s appearances, and handed out AUHS flyers that showed off a self-styled vigilante called “The Pastor” and a bosomy female superhero in a crop top and crotch-hugging miniskirt.
The same sexualized female character, sporting high-heeled boots and crosses on her shoulders, appeared on a 10-foot banner in the school’s lobby, Ms. Bralock testified.
Tensions rose in 2015, as AUHS was seeking an additional accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. After a three-day visit, WASC officials criticized the school’s “idiosyncratic leadership structure,” finding that Mr. Johnson lacked the “qualifications and experience” to be chief operating officer — his title at the time — and faced multiple conflicts of interest, especially if he were to be accused of wrongdoing, according to a report presented at trial.
Neither Mr. Johnson nor Ms. Dang could properly call themselves “doctor,” the report added — although Ms. Dang, who remains an owner and trustee of AUHS, continues to use the title on the school’s Web site at this writing.
WASC refused to accredit the school, jurors heard, until Mr. Johnson halted any direct involvement in its operations. He eventually did step back, along with Ms. Dang, but not until 2016, after Ms. Bralock had already been fired, according to testimony.
In the fraught months after the WASC visit, Mr. Johnson’s behavior led to a flurry of discrimination and harassment accusations from students and staff, according to court documents. Among these claims: Mr. Johnson showed preferential treatment to attractive women; pressed up against a woman when hugging her; made lewd comments around students such as “she should have come naked”; and stared down a student’s top.
A sexual harassment training session was organized for AUHS staff, according to testimony, but Mr. Johnson was so disruptive that he was asked to leave by moderators. At trial, Mr. Johnson denied he was a harasser. “There must be an agenda” behind the accusations, he said in court. “Sometimes people have a problem with [other] people being successful.”
Ms. Bralock and another administrator, Brandon Fryman, spoke with one of the complainants but were quickly removed from the case by Mr. Johnson, they testified. Not long afterward, the AUHS president resigned after multiple run-ins with Mr. Johnson. Ms. Bralock and Mr. Fryman were suspended the same day, and all three officials were escorted off campus.
A few months later, Ms. Bralock and Mr. Fryman were back to AUHS and officially fired. Ms. Bralock’s meeting lasted only 10 minutes, she told the jury. The purported reasons were murky: At trial, Mr. Johnson said he believed Ms. Bralock and Mr. Fryman were scheming with a former employee to open a competing school but offered no evidence of such a plot. In testimony, Ms. Bralock flatly denied the claim; since being fired, she has taught as an adjunct professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and no rival school has emerged.
Mr. Johnson was never barred from AUHS events, nor from interacting with students, he testified; the harassment investigations ended without any significant discipline . He remains a school trustee along with Ms. Dang, and both continue to be featured in AUHS videos and updates.
Ms. Bralock’s upward trajectory in medical education, meanwhile, faltered after she was fired, she testified: She’d like someday to become a university president but knows that her UCLA teaching gig — while fulfilling — is a step down from being dean of a nursing school.
“I had to eat,” she told the jury.
» Read Ms. Bralock’s complaint in the case
» See some of the flyers passed out by Mr. Johnson
» Watch a promo video for Mr. Johnson’s violent antihero comic book “The Pastor”
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Bralock v. American University of Health Sciences, 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.
Ms. Bralock was represented by Law Office of Twila S. White.
This Bad Boss Had the Facts He Needed to Stop Sexual Harassment, Yet Failed to Act
At first, Tracy White saw LaVerne Armstrong as an ally.
Facing sexual comments from her supervisor at the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) — and a lewd office culture that she saw as discriminatory — Ms. White asked to meet with Mr. Armstrong, her higher-level boss, according to testimony in a lawsuit she filed.
“He listened,” the social work administrator said in a deposition. “He was empathetic. … I felt supported.”
Nothing changed, however. In her deposition, Ms. White said she went back to Mr. Armstrong several months later, updating her complaints and reminding him that her supervisor had told her, in front of a co-worker, that he dreamed of her in dominatrix gear.
Mr. Armstrong’s response, according to her testimony?
“You need to stop telling me that … It makes me uncomfortable.”
Mr. Armstrong started an investigation that didn’t focus on discrimination or harassment and found no violations of DHS policy by Ms. White’s supervisor, Michael McInroy. The conclusion, according to testimony: Ms. White needed to upgrade her relationship with Mr. McInroy or look for a job elsewhere in the organization.
Mr. Armstrong also told Ms. White to work with a coach who asked her to consider ways “to make [Mr. McInroy] better” — and who then convened a torturous joint coaching session in which Mr. McInroy implied that his behavior was her fault.
“It felt like … being in marital therapy with my abuser,” Ms. White testified.
LaVerne (Vern) Armstrong is our latest Bad Boss of the Month.
Ultimately, Ms. White complained to someone who acted: Kim Reynolds, the governor of Iowa. Mr. McInroy was fired shortly afterward. Ms. White sued Iowa in state court and, after an 11-day trial this year, won a jury award of $790,000 for emotional distress. Late last month, the trial judge denied two motions to change the outcome.
Ms. White had joined DHS as a social worker in 2000, rising through the ranks of the Des Moines region along with Mr. McInroy, who eventually became her manager. The pair initially got along: Drawn to Ms. White’s office by her stash of chocolate, Mr. McInroy would hang out and chat with the door closed.
“I finally had to ask him to quit coming in so much because people were starting to wonder why he was in my office so much,” Ms. White testified.
But Mr. McInroy was known for playing favorites in the office, according to testimony — and by 2012, Ms. White had fallen into the “out crowd.”
The behavior of some of the “in crowd” troubled Ms. White and other employees: One member of Mr. McInroy’s leadership team, for example, joked about spanking a female employee, whom he allowed to call him “Daddy,” and spoke to co-workers about bodily fluids being “the nectar of the gods,” according to testimony.
Women were frequently assessed in sexual terms. When discussing one employee’s short dress, for instance, Mr. McInroy joked about praying she’d drop her pencil, Ms. White testified. Consequences for bad behavior were rare, she said.
Two incidents prompted Ms. White to seek help from Mr. Armstrong, a level up, in early 2017.
First, a fired employee accused Mr. McInroy in a grievance of discriminating against her as a woman and as a lesbian. While Ms. White agreed with the firing, she testified that she felt the portrayal of Mr. McInroy had merit: Mr. McInroy said he avoided meeting with the employee, for example, and expressed disgust at the idea of the employee having sex with her wife.
Then there was the dominatrix comment.
In the wake of the employee’s firing — which arose from the death of a child under the eye of DHS — the Des Moines office was on edge. A co-worker said she’d had a bad dream that featured Ms. White. According to testimony, Mr. McInroy jumped in: “Oh, was she wearing black leather and whipping you in your nightmare, too?”
The co-worker confirmed the awkward interjection and said she was “taken aback” by Mr. McInroy’s innuendo, an investigator later testified.
Ms. White reviewed her concerns in an initial meeting with Mr. Armstrong, the division administrator for DHS; the session lasted about three hours, she said in a filing. Nevertheless, Mr. Armstrong testified, he never concluded that Ms. White was “making a complaint or an allegation. It was a conversation of … how to make things go better.”
His only action in response: “I talked with Mike to get his perception…[we] talked about how to maybe improve their relationship [and] move forward collaboratively together.”
If anything, however, the opposite happened.
Mr. McInroy became openly hostile toward Ms. White, according to testimony — a change that she saw as retaliation for going up his chain of command. “I had a couple [of meetings] with Mike where he derided and berated me,” she said in a deposition. “I asked to leave the room. I cried.”
When she told Mr. McInroy that she was looking for a way to escape his management, she testified, he seemed “gleeful.”
Stung, Ms. White went back to Mr. Armstrong and then followed up with an e-mail that put her concerns in writing, adding more examples of discrimination. Mr. Armstrong triggered an investigation that ended up being handled internally by DHS rather than by Iowa’s Department of Administrative Services (DAS), which normally looks into harassment allegations.
Court records don’t fully explain why DAS didn’t step in, but the then-director of DHS said in a deposition that both Mr. Armstrong and another top executive, Jean Slaybaugh, had painted Ms. White to higher-ups as “a complainer.”
“That’s the way they referred to her,” testified Jerry Foxhoven, the former director. “To me, they seemed like they were in Mike’s court, you know, particularly Vern … She complains all the time, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”
The internal investigation found no violations on the part of Mr. McInroy, according to Mr. Armstrong. “It was a difference of leadership style,” he testified.
His resulting plan: “To clarify that Mike was remaining in his role, that people needed to get along, that they needed to stop … the discord.” He had no worries about Mr. McInroy’s continued supervision of Ms. White, he said — and he suggested hiring a “leadership development specialist,” or coach, to help defuse tensions.
Mr. Armstrong also explored the possibility that Ms. White could take a demotion or move outside of her area in DHS, child welfare. But, he testified, “she’d have to apply and interview. We weren’t going to just be able to move her.” That discussion went nowhere.
The coaching didn’t go anywhere, either.
Besides asking Ms. White to consider changing her own behavior, the coach organized a joint session with her and Mr. McInroy. During that meeting, Mr. McInroy acknowledged in testimony, he argued that Ms. White had faced his “Angry Mike” persona because of her failings — communication lapses and the like.
“She perceived me as Angry Mike,” Mr. McInroy said. “I would say that I was Annoyed Mike.”
Ms. White reported the dysfunctional outcome to Mr. Armstrong, who quickly gave up on coaching, according to court documents.
Meanwhile, the environment in the Des Moines office didn’t improve. Ms. White testified that she heard, for example, that an I.T. technician had sent an e-mail to a departing female employee saying that he’d miss his “eye candy.”
She reported the harassment to a responsible manager, but no action was taken until she pressed the manager several days later — and then, at the conclusion of a meeting on the matter, the same manager told an anecdote that ended with her singing part of Get Low, an explicit song by crunk star Lil Jon.
Mr. McInroy attended the meeting, Ms. White testified, and didn’t intervene.
Ms. White brought her continuing concerns to Mr. Armstrong, who opened a follow-up internal investigation that resulted in “essentially the same” finding of no violations — except that this time, Mr. Armstrong testified, he opted to “coach and counsel” Mr. McInroy on three incidents, including the dominatrix comment.
Counseling at DHS is a verbal process. Mr. McInroy testified that Mr. Armstrong gave him no specific guidance on what he called the “whips and chains” matter: “He just told me to be careful with my comments.”
In a memo at the end of 2018, Mr. Armstrong informed Ms. White that “appropriate action” now had been taken against Mr. McInroy, who remained in place. In a subsequent meeting, she testified, Mr. Armstrong told her she “needed to get on board.”
A couple of weeks later, she e-mailed Gov. Reynolds in frustration. “I felt I had no other recourse,” Ms. White said in a deposition.
Meanwhile, a different employee had triggered an investigation of another member of the “in crowd” — a female manager whom Ms. White had previously reported to Mr. Armstrong, and who now was accused of sexual harassment. Despite discussing penis size and breast size and giving sex toys to staff members as birthday gifts, an investigator testified, this manager had seemed “untouchable” because of her alignment with Mr. McInroy. Now there was strong evidence, however: A photo of the manager groping the complainant’s breast.
The combination of a phone call from the governor’s office and the new harassment complaint finally spurred DHS into action: This was the point, Mr. Armstrong testified, when he finally realized his office might have a problem.
It was also the point when Mr. Foxhoven, the former DHS director, got more involved. He ordered the firing of Mr. McInroy and told Mr. Armstrong to start looking for a job himself, he said in a deposition.
“Clearly, it was a mess,” he said he told Mr. Armstrong, “and you either didn’t know or didn’t care.”
Mr. Foxhoven warmed Mr. Armstrong that he would be fired on July 1, 2019, if he was still there. He also removed some responsibilities from Jean Slaybaugh, the other executive who had sided with Mr. McInroy over Ms. White, he testified.
But then, in an unexpected twist, Mr. Foxhoven himself was fired in June 2019 — for questioning Gov. Reynolds’ office on an ethical matter, he said in his deposition. Mr. Armstrong, who had never looked for another job anyway, was off the hook.
At trial earlier this year, jurors heard further testimony about the sexually charged Des Moines work environment, which featured photos of action figures in crude poses and a sign that designated one cubicle area as “Sniffer’s Row,” a lurid reference to certain seats at a strip club.
According to court documents, the fired Mr. McInroy agreed at trial that he had talked at work about picturing lesbians having sex — but only, he told jurors, to divert discussion from something inappropriate.
Ms. White cried through much of the trial, according to a filing. Her therapist testified that her distress, which had triggered several mood disorders and two outbreaks of shingles, would continue well into the future — an opinion that the judge cited in finding that the jury’s $790,000 award wasn’t excessive.
Ms. White still works at DHS, according to her attorney. So does Mr. Armstrong, who now serves as the head of DHS field operations, according to a recent org chart.
Ms. Slaybaugh, who with Mr. Armstrong had tagged Ms. White as a “complainer,” according to testimony, has risen to become the agency’s chief operating officer.
» Read Ms. White’s original complaint in the case
» Read the judge’s ruling on post-trial motions
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in White v. State of Iowa. 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.
Ms. White was represented by Fiedler Law Firm, P.L.C.
This Bad Boss Froze Out Her Employee as a “Non-Believer.” He Complained and Ended Up Working Next to a Urinal.
Rasean Johnson was a proud third-generation employee of the City of San Diego. He loved his job in the downtown City Clerk’s Office — until Sheila Beale became his supervisor.
A demonstrative Christian, Ms. Beale regularly proclaimed her religious beliefs in the workplace. According to a federal lawsuit filed by Mr. Johnson, she led “prayer sessions” during staff meetings, touted the virtues of attending church, and inquired about employees’ religious affiliations.
During one performance review, Ms. Beale instructed Mr. Johnson to read the Bible because “even good people go to hell if they don’t give their life to the word of God,” his complaint alleged. She told one of his direct reports to ignore him as a “non-believer,” according to the complaint, and she later assigned Mr. Johnson entry-level work after he refused to pray with her.
Mr. Johnson finally went to his labor union, the San Diego Municipal Employees Association. MEA filed a grievance with the city, accusing Ms. Beale of creating a hostile work environment and discriminating against Mr. Johnson and two other employees.
While the investigation proceeded, Ms. Beale stripped Mr. Johnson of his supervisory duties, reassigned his staff to another manager, and excluded him from projects, he said in his federal complaint. Even after the city had corroborated much of Ms. Beale’s alleged behavior, according to testimony, the only option it offered Mr. Johnson was a transfer to a different job site.
He reluctantly made the move, only to end up in a repurposed storage space with a hole that opened into the plumbing of a neighboring space: The men’s bathroom.
Sheila Beale is our new Bad Boss of the Month.
Mr. Johnson filed a lawsuit against the City of San Diego claiming religious discrimination, a hostile work environment, and retaliation. His retaliation claim reached trial in May 2019, and a federal jury awarded him $350,000. The parties have since reached a settlement.
Mr. Johnson had started working for the city in 2004 as a stock clerk in the Records Management Department, according to court documents. It took six or seven applications before he finally landed the job, Mr. Johnson testified, but working with the city was important to him. He was following in the footsteps of many relatives who worked for the city, including his grandfather and great-grandfather.
“It’s a family thing,” he said at trial.
At first, the atmosphere in the clerk’s office was “wonderful,” he recalled. He saw budding politicians launch their careers, and he was friendly with each mayor in office. He had a mentor in the deputy director of his department. He loved the work he did, especially his dream of digitizing records and making them available online. At trial, he called this project his “baby.”
Then Mr. Johnson began reporting to Ms. Beale, according to court documents — and the topic of religion suddenly entered the workplace.
On one occasion, Ms. Beale quizzed Mr. Johnson about Prop 8, a California ballot initiative that banned same-sex marriage and later was found unconstitutional. Is it “okay if gays marry?” she asked, according to Mr. Johnson’s complaint. Hearing that Mr. Johnson had no problem with it, she told him he was “not a child of God.”
Another time, according to court filings, Ms. Beale singled out Mr. Johnson during a staff meeting because his relationship with his girlfriend was not “blessed,” she said — they weren’t “married under the Lord.”
By 2013, Mr. Johnson oversaw a six-person staff plus volunteers but still reported to Ms. Beale. Chafing and feeling marginalized by her religious zeal, he applied for a job with the nearby city of Chula Vista.
Mr. Johnson ranked highly among the applicants, according to court documents. During the interview process, however, he was shocked to see that Ms. Beale sat on Chula Vista’s Civil Service Commission and was a part of the hiring committee for the position. Mr. Johnson did not get the job — and after that, he testified, Ms. Beale’s religious scrutiny only grew.
A reckoning came the following year. In a deposition, Mr. Johnson recalled that Ms. Beale called him into her office upon his return to the office after a bereavement. She grabbed Mr. Johnson’s hands and began praying for him, he testified, but he rebuffed her and insisted on getting back to work.
Soon afterward, he said, Ms. Beale sent him to extract hundreds of archived records from the basement for scanning — a rote job usually performed by a records stock clerk, the same entry-level position Mr. Johnson had held a decade prior. Finally fed up, Mr. Johnson contacted his union and filed a grievance. Inevitably, Ms. Beale heard about his action.
“I was hurt,” she said at trial.
While the investigation was ongoing, Mr. Johnson claimed in court filings, Ms. Beale curtailed his authority and reassigned his staff elsewhere. He reported the retaliation to his union rep.
Then Ms. Beale learned that the city had granted Mr. Johnson’s request to be removed from her direct supervision. She informed Elena Mendoza, a co-worker of Mr. Johnson, that she’d serve as Mr. Johnson’s manager — but she testified at trial that she failed to tell Mr. Johnson that his request had been approved.
He found out the hard way: He e-mailed Ms. Beale and received an out-of-office reply that listed people to contact for various concerns. In the e-mail filed with the court, Ms. Mendoza was incorrectly listed with Mr. Johnson’s title: Imaging Supervisor.
“I was surprised,” Mr. Johnson said at trial. “Typically, my name should’ve been right there.”
Ms. Beale testified that the e-mail error was “just an oversight.” Mr. Johnson, on the other hand, said he felt targeted.
Tensions grew. Mr. Johnson testified at trial that Ms. Beale stopped speaking directly to him: She didn’t return his “good mornings” and would ask Ms. Mendoza to relay comments to him even when all three were physically together. He was excluded from staff meetings and even from casual conversations, he said.
“I felt like an elephant in the room every time,” Mr. Johnson said at trial. “If you ever felt that way, it’s not good, especially when you got your heart and soul in what you’re doing.”
After five months of investigation, Mr. Johnson received a letter saying the city had found sufficient evidence to support his allegation of a hostile work environment. By this point, however, Ms. Beale had relegated him to the basement to take inventory and mark boxes, he testified; his access to computer systems was limited, and some of his keys were taken. Ms. Beale remained closely involved in his management, even writing his performance evaluation the month after the investigation concluded — more typically a task for Ms. Mendoza, his new direct supervisor, according to testimony.
Despite city policy, Mr. Johnson didn’t get a mediation session to resolve his grievance, according to testimony. He was given only two options, he told the court: Put up with the situation, or transfer. Although he didn’t want to leave the clerk’s office, Mr. Johnson decided he had no choice.
He knew little about his new job, he testified, until he was told to report to the Public Utilities Department operation yard, where he would catalog water meters that were being taken out of service.
“It made me sick,” he told jurors. The only good part about it: “I got out from under Sheila Beale.”
At trial, Mr. Johnson described his new office as a “converted closet.” A hole in the wall allowed the smell from the men’s urinal next door to waft into his space every day. On rainy days or whenever there was a backup, Mr. Johnson testified, the smell was even worse.
Ms. Beale, meanwhile, testified that she felt “relieved” by Mr. Johnson’s transfer. “It was just a stressful situation,” she said.
Ms. Beale told the court that no one ever discussed with her the findings in the city’s 20-page investigative report into her behavior — although her boss, Elizabeth Maland, testified to giving Ms. Beale confidential “corrective action” in writing.
Ms. Maland also said at trial that she ordered department-wide training in response to the conflict over Ms. Beale’s conduct. Still, she admitted to telling the H.R. department that Mr. Johnson’s transfer would make things “better.”
In a deposition, Mr. Johnson said he felt his career had been “derailed.” He filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and, after a period of investigation, received a letter giving him the right to sue the municipality he had worked so hard to join.
“I lost the ability to look at the city logo and be proud of it,” Mr. Johnson said at trial. “I [used to feel] a sense of importance where I worked at. I felt a part of the team. Now I just take a piece of paper by the stacks and put it in the database and file accordingly.”
Although the jury found in Mr. Johnson’s favor, his monetary award was reduced to $300,000 because of a statutory cap on non-economic damages, commonly known as pain and suffering. The San Diego City Council subsequently voted to settle his case for $565,000, including attorney fees.
Sheila Beale remains a deputy director in the Office of the City Clerk, according to its Web site.
» Read Mr. Johnson’s complaint in the case
» See the hole in the wall of Mr. Johnson’s office at the Chollas Operational Yard
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Johnson v. City of San Diego. 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. Johnson was represented by Smith Steiner Vanderpool, APC.