This Bad Boss Bonded with a Sales Star Over Mani-Pedis — But Was It All a Veneer?
At first, Jennifer Harris’ boss at FedEx Corporate Services seemed an ally: The two women swapped tales of their families, hung out at team dinners, and even hit the salon together for manicures and pedicures.
But then Michelle Lamb, the new director of FedEx’s “Longhorn” region in southern Texas, suggested that Ms. Harris — a driven sales manager who had broken college records as a relay sprinter — should consider taking a voluntary demotion because she wasn’t an adequate leader, according to a lawsuit.
As a top performer who had recently helped her boss to win a sales award, Ms. Harris felt “blindsided” by Ms. Lamb, she testified at trial. The only notable difference between her and her peers, as far as she could see, was her skin color: She was the only Black sales manager on the team. Ms. Lamb is white.
Ms. Harris declined to step down and instead asked FedEx to investigate possible bias. Not long after, she started getting discipline from Ms. Lamb — the first-ever demerits of her career, according to testimony.
After raising more concerns, this time about possible retaliation, Ms. Harris was put on a performance improvement plan (PIP) that required her to outperform some white peers who weren’t on PIPs themselves.
Finally, a month after Ms. Harris filed a third internal complaint, her former manicure buddy fired her.
Michelle Lamb is our latest Bad Boss of the Month.
Ms. Harris filed suit against FedEx in federal court, claiming race discrimination and retaliation. In October 2022, after a week-long trial, a jury in Houston found FedEx liable for retaliation and awarded her a whopping $366 million — an amount that may have been the largest-ever such award. FedEx appealed the outcome in February 2023.
By the time Ms. Harris was fired, she had been working for FedEx’s corporate sales organization for more than 12 years. According to testimony at trial, her early days at the company in Irving, Tex., in her second real job out of college, were life-changing.
Both of her parents were educators, Ms. Harris said, so she didn’t have much experience in the corporate world. Two mentors at FedEx took her in hand, teaching her how to remake her image so that she could advance more easily — dressing more sedately, toning down her “rather loud” persona.
“These two ladies saw potential in me, and had the courage to pull me to the side,” she told jurors. “They helped me identify that if I wanted to be able to grow with the company, I have to actually present myself as such — even the simplest things, [like] getting a watch, pearls … Just kind of restructuring.”
Before long Ms. Harris was thriving. At trial, a former co-worker called her “an immensely hard worker” who was so dedicated to FedEx — and even to its favored causes, such as Habitat for Humanity — that she “bled purple,” the shipping giant’s signature color.
Over her tenure, according to testimony, Ms. Harris was promoted six times and was named twice to the President’s Club, an honor reserved for stellar performers who then get to mingle with top execs on a luxury trip. Many FedEx salespeople go their entire careers without even one such award, jurors heard.
Along the way, Ms. Harris was selected for a FedEx leadership program and became a manager. In mid-2017, she was chosen to lead a $60 million district based in Houston, just as Ms. Lamb was tapped to head the parent region. Both women worked in the same building, on the same floor — and Ms. Harris believed she found had a new mentor and role model.
“I was excited to [be] able to learn from someone who was recently promoted into the director role, which I aspired to be,” she told jurors.
The early days were good; this was when they went for manicures together. Ms. Harris’ team initially exceeded their goals, along with several other teams, and helped Ms. Lamb to earn a coveted President’s Club honor.
In fiscal 2019, however, performance was rough across the entire company. Under pressure, the women’s relationship started to fray. Ms. Harris asked for weekly coaching meetings, hoping to tap into her boss’s experience, but was frustrated by a lack of concrete advice, she testified.
Then, in March 2019, came Ms. Lamb’s unexpected suggestion that Ms. Harris should think about dropping her management role, purportedly because of failings as a team coach — and also because her “passion for engaging with customers” might make her happier in a low-ranking role. All of a sudden, Ms. Harris testified, she reevaluated their past interactions and saw patterns she didn’t like, especially in comparison to Ms. Lamb’s treatment of white managers.
Ms. Harris testified, for instance, that Ms. Lamb had previously accused her of not participating in company incentive programs as other managers did — but cited data from before Ms. Harris was even in her position. Ms. Lamb also set unfair hurdles for Ms. Harris’ group by removing a big customer from the district without adjusting sales goals, she said.
Besides, Ms. Harris told jurors, her subordinates gave her high scores as a manager and coach in FedEx’s official surveys. “Statistics demonstrated that I was good at that job,” she testified.
“You’re supposed to be developed by your leader,” Ms. Harris said in court. “That was my goal [in] asking for additional one-on-ones. What I didn’t want is to be harassed in those meetings … There was never any leadership on Michelle Lamb’s part. It was always a beat-down. … All of those things where it’s clear that data demonstrates I am not the lowest, but … she’s belittling me, comparing me to my white peers.”
At trial, Ms. Lamb denied that she had ever treated Ms. Harris differently based on her race.
“It’s disgusting to be referred to as a racist,” she told jurors. “I am not a racist, nor do I associate with people who are.”
FedEx investigated Ms. Harris’ claims of discrimination and didn’t take any action against Ms. Lamb. Likewise at trial, the jury didn’t find enough evidence to prove discrimination.
What happened next, however, would ultimately lead to the nine-figure verdict.
Shortly after the discrimination investigation closed, and barely a year after Ms. Harris’ second President’s Award, Ms. Lamb hit her with a letter of counseling for “unacceptable performance” and a PIP, according to testimony.
Ms. Harris and her team weren’t meeting some goals, according to documents shown in court, but they also were performing better than some other teams under Ms. Lamb — and anyhow, high performers often lagged after an exceptional year, jurors heard.
Asked to explain at trial why Ms. Harris was singled out when several white peers had similar or worse team records, Ms. Lamb cited “leadership deficiencies.” Among the examples she discussed: When excluded by Ms. Lamb from a FedEx training program to “cut costs,” Ms. Harris had paid her own way to attend the session on a vacation day.
“Why aren’t you praising her for that?” asked Ms. Harris’ attorney. Ms. Lamb replied that she was “disappointed that [Ms. Harris] didn’t follow instructions.”
“You have to be capable of leading a team,” she testified, “and you have to be capable of being led. … Jennifer just lacked that ability.”
There were other disputes: Whether Ms. Lamb had reduced the revenue available to Ms. Harris by removing a member from her team; whether Ms. Lamb had shunted a big potential customer away from Ms. Harris. Amid this discord, the former sales star filed another internal complaint, alleging that Ms. Lamb was punishing her for the original discrimination claim.
Just days after the second FedEx probe ended — again to no effect — Ms. Lamb issued a letter of warning to Ms. Harris and put her on another PIP, according to testimony. The new plan required Ms. Harris to deliver a performance equal to the average of her peers, which meant outperforming some district managers who weren’t on PIPs themselves.
The conflict took a toll on Ms. Harris. According to testimony, the former athlete gained weight, developed anxiety, and had trouble sleeping due to “continuous dry heaving” that required medication and a procedure to address a developing hernia.
She filed a final internal complaint in December 2019 and was fired by Ms. Lamb the following month, ending an almost-13-year career at FedEx. Based on documents shown in court, her performance had exceeded several of her peers through much of the contested period.
“I never thought I would ever not work for FedEx,” Ms. Harris told the jury, describing her trauma upon leaving. Even today, she testified, she needs to look away whenever she sees a FedEx truck.
At trial, Ms. Harris’ pastor described her as “emotionally destroyed” by the firing. He saw her break down in tears several times, he said, and described holding her as she sobbed publicly at a birthday celebration in a restaurant.
“I am still worried about her mental state,” he testified.
A unanimous jury found that FedEx retaliated against Ms. Harris because of her claims of discrimination, and that the company didn’t treat her internal complaints in good faith. They awarded her more than $1 million for past and future emotional damage — and because they found FedEx’s behavior in the case to be “reprehensible,” they added a huge $365 million in punitive damages.
The number may have been inspired by Ms. Harris’ attorney, who suggested during his closing argument that punitive damages should send a message based on the overall value of FedEx Corporate Services: The jury awarded Ms. Harris about half the worth of the FedEx unit.
Ms. Lamb still works for FedEx, meanwhile, having been moved into a new position with “a larger [revenue] responsibility” than when she managed Ms. Harris, she testified.
» Read Ms. Harris’ second amended complaint
» Watch a news segment of Ms. Harris speaking with WFAA-TV
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Harris v. FedEx Corporate Services, 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. Harris was represented by The Sanford Firm in Dallas.
Irked by a Cop’s Dyslexia, This Bad Boss Turned a Minor Traffic Stop into a Firing Offense
Dyslexia and ADHD didn’t stop Timothy Patrick “Pat” Green from working as a police officer for the City of South Pasadena. It was his dream job — and he did it happily for about 25 years.
Working first as a reserve officer and then full-time, Mr. Green became a well-loved figure in the community; fellow officers dubbed him “Father Pat” for his outreach to homeless and at-risk people.
One captain didn’t share the warm feelings, however. According to testimony in a lawsuit filed by Mr. Green, Richard Kowaltschuk was infuriated by his subordinate’s disabilities, to the point of expressing “disgust” at written reports that contained words garbled by the officer’s dyslexia.
The captain even rejected reports that sympathetic co-workers had helped Mr. Green to write, one colleague said at trial. “It was just never good enough,” the officer told jurors, noting that he had warned Mr. Green that Mr. Kowaltschuk was “coming after you.”
The blowup came after Mr. Green pulled over a driver early one morning. The event itself was relatively minor, but Mr. Kowaltschuk latched onto inconsistencies in the report, accusing his subordinate of lying — and twice re-staged the event to bolster his theory, according to court documents.
“This is our opportunity to get Pat Green,” the captain told an investigating officer, according to testimony. Although the investigator ended up recommending no action, Mr. Kowaltschuk wrote a memo urging Mr. Green’s firing — and before long “Father Pat” was out.
Richard Kowaltschuk is our latest Bad Boss of the Month.
Mr. Green filed a lawsuit against South Pasadena, claiming disability discrimination and other violations of California law. A Los Angeles jury sided with Mr. Green, awarding him damages of almost $4.8 million, an amount that was later reduced to about $1.7 million by the trial judge. Mr. Green’s victory withstood an appeal; last year he was paid more than $3.6 million, an amount that included his substantial legal costs.
Mr. Green had wanted to be a cop ever since watching Adam-12 as a kid. After failing third grade he was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD, attending a special education program for years, yet his zeal for law enforcement never flagged: He signed up to be a Police Explorer at 14. An ethos of public service was “instilled from my parents,” he explained at trial. His father was a World War II pilot; several of his siblings have served their communities, including in the police.
Mr. Green disclosed his disabilities on his police academy application, he testified, and they were widely known and accepted at work. As a cop he visited schools to talk with kids who had dyslexia and ADHD, to show them that their dreams were still possible.
Former police chief Joseph Payne acknowledged in court documents that Mr. Green’s reports and investigations were affected by his disabilities — but he noted that co-workers often helped out their friend, and that Mr. Green’s community-relations skills were “probably better than just about anybody else in the department.”
At trial, one supervisor called Mr. Green “an excellent officer.” Positive evaluations were entered into evidence: In one internal memo, a captain wrote that Mr. Green “is much too valuable an employee to let [poor] report writing stand in his way.”
Mr. Kowaltschuk disagreed, however, and peppered Mr. Green with negative feedback and nuisance investigations, according to testimony. In conversations, the captain was “often angry and a bit of a martinet,” a witness told jurors, while Mr. Green was “always very proper and courteous and restrained.”
The traffic incident happened in January 2012. During an overnight shift, Mr. Green pulled over a driver for minor speeding — but then got sidetracked by nearby suspicious activity, he testified, allowing the original offender to leave. Although Mr. Green didn’t know it at the time, the driver had been drinking and minutes earlier had left the scene of a fender bender, according to testimony.
The driver later turned himself in; he wasn’t prosecuted for any of his early-morning actions, according to court documents. Still, Mr. Kowaltschuk launched an internal probe based on discrepancies between the driver’s account and that of Mr. Green. Among the questions: Why didn’t Mr. Green realize the driver had been drinking — or ask about the car’s newly damaged front end?
Mr. Green explained that he had spoken to the driver only briefly while standing near the back of the car, but Mr. Kowaltschuk said that simply wasn’t credible, according to documents. When the investigating sergeant declined to recommend any discipline, Mr. Kowaltschuk asked him to alter the findings to include an allegation of dishonesty. The sergeant refused, testifying that he believed Mr. Kowaltschuk was “going after Pat because of his disabilities, like he’s been out for him for years.”
Undeterred, Mr. Kowaltschuk commandeered the matter and sent a memo to then-Chief Payne — who had been supportive of Mr. Green’s career — recommending that the dyslexic officer be fired for lying and negligence, according to court records. The captain’s recommendation was based partly on his own recreations of the incident, which an expert described in court as improper and flawed.
The chief didn’t take Mr. Kowaltschuk’s advice, but he agreed that Mr. Green hadn’t been diligent enough. The officer’s ultimate punishment: A six-day suspension, to be stayed if Mr. Green completed training to help mitigate the effect of his learning disabilities.
Except then, just a few weeks later, Chief Payne retired.
On his very first day as acting chief, newcomer Arthur Miller reviewed Mr. Green’s file — including Mr. Kowaltschuk’s arguments about dishonesty. Based on that record, Acting Chief Miller concluded that Mr. Green had made statements “with intent to deceive.” The stayed suspension, he said, was “too lenient,” according to documents in the case.
After some back-and-forth, Mr. Green was terminated in August 2013 — and his life quickly cratered.
He tried to find another job in law enforcement but “nobody would touch me for getting fired for lying,” he testified; he ended up overseeing maintenance for several Mexican restaurants owned by a family he has known since childhood. He took medication for depression and sleeplessness, but found the side effects intolerable. Eventually he found that exercise helped to stave off his despair.
According to a doctor who spoke at trial, Mr. Green has suffered from the symptoms of major depressive disorder — and, even more deeply, the loss of identity that came from being fired for dishonesty.
“He really viewed himself as a good cop,” the doctor testified, but now “he can’t ever be a police officer, which is something that he was really proud of and fought for. … [T]hat’s not going to go away.”
For his suffering, past and future, the jury awarded Mr. Green $4 million. South Pasadena argued the amount was excessive and the trial judge agreed, giving Mr. Green a choice of a new trial or a $3.1 million reduction in his non-economic damages. He took the slashed damages. South Pasadena and Mr. Green both appealed the outcome, but an appellate court affirmed the final judgment.
Last year Mr. Green asked the city to reclassify his firing as an honorable retirement, and to grant him a retired police badge.
So far the city has declined.
» Read Mr. Green’s original complaint in the case
» Read a local newspaper’s interview with Mr. Green
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Green v. City of South Pasadena. 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. Green was represented by The Law Offices of Vincent Miller.
Running a Nashville Studio with His Famous Wife, This Bad Boss Hit a Series of Wrong Notes
Country music star Martina McBride and her husband John founded Blackbird Studio, a recording facility in Nashville, Tenn., in 2002. Along with Ms. McBride herself, Blackbird’s high-profile clients have ranged from Adele to the Zac Brown Band.
In 2012 Mr. McBride hired Richard Hanson as Blackbird’s operations manager, a job that grew to include oversight of assistant engineers and unpaid interns. According to documents filed in a subsequent lawsuit, Mr. Hanson quickly became concerned that some studio staff weren’t being paid properly for overtime hours — and that interns weren’t getting any educational benefit from menial chores set by Mr. McBride, who ran the facility.
Among other duties, according to court documents, interns had to clean toilets, pick up groceries and lottery tickets for the McBride family, and buy a endless stream of phone chargers for Mr. McBride, who kept breaking them. Both McBrides would publicly “yell at, scold and chastise” interns when a chore wasn’t done to their liking, according to Mr. Hanson’s complaint.
Plus there was the time an intern was asked to prowl around the McBrides’ home with a gun, the lawsuit said.
On several occasions Mr. Hanson informed Mr. McBride that Blackbird might be violating federal labor laws, according to testimony. Things came to a head, Mr. Hanson told the court, when an intern was unfairly blamed for failing to deliver lunch to Ms. McBride at her home. Frustrated, Mr. Hanson contacted the U.S. Department of Labor to see if Blackbird’s practices were legal.
Upon learning of Mr. Hanson’s inquiry, Mr. McBride fired him on the spot. “I’m f***ing done with you,” a court order quotes him as saying. “Get your s*** and get the f*** out of my studio.”
John McBride is our latest Bad Boss of the Month.
Mr. Hanson filed a complaint against the McBrides and Blackbird, claiming illegal retaliation for his good-faith concerns about labor practices. Ms. McBride, the singer, was dismissed as an individual defendant — but early in 2020 a federal jury found her husband and Blackbird liable for about $160,000 in damages.
This month the trial judge awarded Mr. Hanson a further $200,000 to cover attorney fees and interest. Because Mr. McBride fired his employee for an improper reason, the judge wrote in her order, he had himself to blame for “numerous sensitive and embarrassing facts [being] brought to light in a public forum.”
Though his background was in sound engineering, Rich Hanson had never really fit into the Blackbird scene. He was popular with clients and won praise for “his technical abilities and being able to make things happen the way they were supposed to,” the studio’s manager testified, but he also wore people out — including Mr. McBride, the owner — with incessant critiques.
“There were many times where I asked him to calm down, or to chill, or to take a deep breath,” Mr. Hanson’s superior Rolff Zwiep said in a deposition, “and he didn’t even hear me. He would just talk over me.”
Mr. Hanson was especially focused on overtime issues and the treatment of Blackbird’s unpaid interns, who complained in court filings that they were regarded, in essence, as cleaners and personal servants to the McBrides.
One recent college graduate, for instance, wrote that he never received “any sort of training/advice on music recording” during his Blackbird internship, “which was the entire reason I was there in the first place.” Instead, he wrote, he was asked to dust, do food runs, and to pack up equipment and clean toilets after late-night sessions.
Another intern wrote that, in addition to scrubbing toilets, he would mop, vacuum, and do dishes in a shift that ran from 6:00pm to 6:00am. A graduate of audio engineering school, he often ended up taking orders from the McBrides’ young daughters, who would call Blackbird requesting candy — which the intern said he had to buy and deliver to the family home.
“Learning was not a large part of my internship,” he wrote, “but … I can clean your toilet so well you could eat off of it.” When this intern sought employment in Nashville afterward, he said, he was “laughed off the phone” and told that Blackbird “only produces talented cleaners.” Four years later he was waiting tables.
The gun incident happened one night when both McBrides were out of town, according to testimony and court documents, and a sitter was minding two McBride daughters. Believing there was an intruder, one of the daughters had called Mr. McBride — who, rather than contacting police, called Blackbird at 1:30am and asked for an intern to check it out.
(In a deposition, Mr. McBride acknowledged the request and said he frequently asked Blackbird staff to check the security of his home, involving interns “probably three or four times.”)
Two interns and an assistant engineer arrived at the house, where the worried sitter declined to call the police, asked the Blackbird people to secure the house, and gave them a loaded gun, according to court documents. As the only person familiar with firearms, one of the interns took the weapon and led a search of the property. There was no sign of an intruder, but the sitter remained uneasy and took the McBride girls elsewhere to sleep, according to a witness’ summary.
The intern later wrote to Mr. Hanson that he knew he’d sometimes have to “perform some less than desirable tasks” — but that risking personal harm “went so far beyond what I signed up for,” according to an e-mail filed with the court.
Mr. Hanson’s breaking point came in June 2017, the day Ms. McBride didn’t get her lunch fast enough.
An intern had been told to pick up food from The Tavern, a local eatery, and deliver it to the country singer at home. When the star didn’t have her food an hour later, Mr. Hanson recalled in a deposition, her husband became “very angry … and he demanded that [a second intern] go back to the restaurant and pick up another order.”
Mr. Hanson knew the food had been delivered: The first intern already had reported back to Blackbird with the receipt, he testified. It turned out that Ava, the McBrides’ youngest daughter, had accepted the food but forgotten to tell her mom.
In his deposition, Mr. McBride conceded that his daughter “may have had something to do with it,” but still faulted Mr. Hanson for being wound so tight. “A negative attitude is not a good thing to have in a recording studio,” Mr. McBride testified. “It’s a creative environment where … the vibe is very important.”
Steamed at “the accumulation of all the things … over my course of employment,” Mr. Hanson logged onto the Department of Labor’s Web site and filled out a form to report that his employer was “using unpaid interns in a manner that wasn’t appropriate, and also was not paying certain staff members overtime that they were due,” he said in a deposition.
Shortly afterward, Mr. Hanson told Mr. Zwiep what he had done — and Mr. Zwiep promptly informed Mr. McBride. According to court documents, Mr. McBride called Mr. Hanson and lit into him: “I hear you have a f***ing problem and you’re going to call the Better Business Bureau [sic] or some f***ing s***.”
When Mr. Hanson corrected him, saying he had already contacted the Department of Labor, Mr. McBride fired him.
In a deposition, Mr. McBride testified that “the straw that broke the camel’s back was the lunchtime fiasco” — but claimed he didn’t fire Mr. Hanson because of the DOL report. In fact, he said, he already had made plans to fire Mr. Hanson and was waiting only for his intended replacement to return from a European honeymoon.
Mr. Hanson’s firing didn’t stop the DOL investigation that he had triggered, which ultimately found ten separate overtime violations at Blackbird. Mr. McBride agreed to pay staff members more than $40,000 in back wages and damages.
The Blackbird internship program, however, didn’t draw any sanction. Although the interns were unpaid, the DOL said, they got some experience and received educational credit as agreed. The youngsters were “the primary beneficiaries of the relationship,” the investigator concluded.
» Read Mr. Hanson’s complaint in the case
» Read e-mails from interns describing their experience at Blackbird (some information redacted)
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Hanson v. McBride. 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. Hanson was represented by Morgan & Morgan, P.A..
This Bad Boss Gave Her Director-Level Work — But Found Reasons Not to Give Her a Matching Title
Crystal Trawick was a homegrown success at Carmike Cinemas, a Georgia-based chain of minor-market movieplexes that drew crowds with its extra activities such as mini golf, rollerskating, and video games.
Ms. Trawick started at Carmike the age of 19 as a part-time laser tag attendant. By the time she left she had been promoted nine times and served as the company’s top marketing official. She reported to Fred Van Noy, Carmike’s chief operating officer, and drew praise from the company’s CEO.
But even though Ms. Trawick functioned as a director-level executive at publicly traded Carmike, Mr. Van Noy declined to give her a title or salary that matched her responsibilities, according to court filings. When she pressed the matter, she was told she’d need a bachelor’s degree to be named as a director — a credential held by neither her boss, who like her had joined Carmike as a teenager, nor by Ms. Trawick’s most obvious male peer at the company, the director of advertising.
Indeed, the marketing job was Carmike’s only director position to require a bachelor’s degree, Mr. Van Noy told a jury — and the requirement was added only after Ms. Trawick had assumed the role on an informal basis.
When Ms. Trawick persisted, Mr. Van Noy became increasingly harsh and demanding with her, according to testimony. He didn’t pass along her complaints of unfairness to Carmike’s H.R. department, he told jurors. And ultimately he launched an investigation into Ms. Trawick’s handling of a minor sponsorship. He fired her for “insubordination” during the probe, he testified — not because he found any wrongdoing.
Fred Van Noy is our new Bad Boss of the Month.
Ms. Trawick filed a lawsuit against Carmike, claiming sexual discrimination, retaliation, and other wrongdoing. In September a federal jury awarded her more than $1.1 million in damages on the discrimination claim, an amount that was slashed to $367,000 based on statutory limits. Carmike didn’t appeal and earlier this year paid Ms. Trawick more than $1 million, an amount that included her substantial legal costs.
A child of divorce and poverty in Alabama, Ms. Trawick had lived in her mother’s car and in shelters until she was adopted at nine by a grandmother who turned out to be abusive — driving her into foster care as a teenager, she testified. Although she won a scholarship to attend Troy State University in Troy, Ala., she dropped out to work at Carmike, which quickly became, she said at trial, “my life.”
Based in Columbus, Ga., just across the Alabama border, the company targeted small markets and called itself “America’s Hometown Theatre.” Ms. Trawick enjoyed a steadily rising career there, gathering experience in film buying, theater operations, and marketing — and also participating in civic organizations and joining local boards, which Carmike CEO David Passman encouraged her to do, according to testimony.
In 2012 Ms. Trawick joined Carmike’s marketing department at the invitation of Mr. Van Noy, he testified — and when he fired the incumbent marketing director not long afterward, he asked her to assume most of the man’s duties. He didn’t upgrade her title, he acknowledged, or give her a raise to reflect her new responsibilities.
At the time Ms. Trawick had just completed an associate’s degree from Chattahoochee Valley Community College by taking classes “here and there as I could” over more than a decade at Carmike, she testified. Mr. Passman, the Carmike CEO, had urged her to “finish” her college education, she testified, so in 2013 she began classes at a nearby Troy campus in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree — but she found the work impossible to complete because of her expanded duties.
“My hours had severely increased,” she testified. “I took two [classes] and I wasn’t able to manage the workload.”
That year Ms. Trawick earned just under $43,000 at Carmike, based on a W-2 form shown at trial, while the fired marketing director had earned at least $95,000 in salary, according to testimony. During an annual review in the second half of 2013, Mr. Van Noy told Ms. Trawick “he did not realize how little I was being paid,” she told jurors — yet his only action was to grant a four-percent bump for her “exceeded expectations” evaluation.
Ms. Trawick continued as Carmike’s de facto marketing director through 2014 and most of 2015, traveling extensively and even attending conference calls from home during her maternity leave under pressure from Mr. Van Noy, she testified. Executives often referred to her as the director of marketing; Mr. Van Noy even introduced her that way publicly during a theater opening, she testified.
Other Carmike officials began to ask Mr. Van Noy why he hadn’t formally promoted their colleague. One division manager, Jim Lucas, testified that Mr. Van Noy said he’d never elevate Ms. Trawick unless he was forced to do so — and gestured upward, indicating that such an order could come only from above.
“And who was up there?” Mr. Lucas was asked.
“Well, it was either [CEO] David Passman or the Lord,” he replied.
According to Mr. Lucas, Mr. Van Noy behaved more harshly in meetings toward Ms. Trawick than toward her male counterpart Shannon Sailors, the company’s director of advertising. At trial, evidence showed that when Mr. Sailors and Ms. Trawick both received positive performance ratings in 2014 — along with identical comments from Mr. Van Noy — Mr. Sailors got a higher percentage raise than Ms. Trawick, expanding the gap in their base salaries to 37 percent.
Asked in front of the jury whether he could explain the discrepancy in raises, Mr. Van Noy said, simply, “No.”
Finally, in August 2015, Ms. Trawick became more aggressive. She had been approached by a headhunter about switching companies, but she wanted to stay at Carmike. At a meeting with Mr. Van Noy, she told jurors, she made what she described as a discrimination complaint, comparing herself to Mr. Sailors and saying she needed the director title and a pay increase.
At trial, Mr. Van Noy denied that Ms. Trawick complained of being underpaid. He admitted that he never discussed her pay or title with Carmike’s H.R. director and that, around that time, he started interviewing a series of men for the director job — or possibly a newly invented senior position above Ms. Trawick. Frustrated, Ms. Trawick took her problem to Mr. Passman, the Carmike CEO.
Mr. Passman had previously been generous in his praise for Ms. Trawick’s work, lauding her in company e-mails as a “star” and “Superwoman.” Earlier that year, she testified, when she told him that she planned to talk about the glass ceiling in a speech she’d been invited to give to her community college, he had acknowledged its existence and its injustice. Yet in this latest meeting he still insisted, she recalled to jurors, that she’d need to get her bachelor’s degree before advancing because “men are going to require that of you, whether it’s with this company or any company.”
This was the first time Ms. Trawick heard that her academic record was being used to hold her back; Mr. Van Noy had known but never told her, he testified. Meanwhile, neither Mr. Van Noy, Mr. Sailors, nor Mr. Lucas had a bachelor’s degree. According to testimony, Ms. Trawick was the only internal director candidate to whom such a requirement was applied.
At a pre-trial hearing, Ms. Trawick’s attorney lumped Mr. Passman and Mr. Van Noy together as “two bad actors” and cited a pattern of good-old-boy discrimination at the higher levels of Carmike. It was Mr. Van Noy, however, who took the lead role here.
Shortly after Ms. Trawick met with the CEO, Mr. Van Noy and another executive called her into a meeting to discuss a Carmike sponsorship she had helped to secure for Quadrille, a women’s society club in which she was a leader — and they also walked her through various expense submissions, all of which had been approved by Mr. Van Noy, she testified. Carmike executives routinely requested donations for community groups with which they were involved, jurors heard, with cross-checks in place to avoid self-dealing.
Although the $2,000 Quadrille sponsorship had been approved by Mr. Sailors, Ms. Trawick found herself under official investigation and Mr. Van Noy instructed her not to “poll [her] peers” during the process, she told the court. Just a day later, on a Friday, Mr. Van Noy asked if she had talked to anyone: He’d heard a report that she did. Ms. Trawick said she had spoken with a subordinate about an aspect of the matter, she testified, and she railed against the idea that she’d misuse Carmike funds as “just insulting and not true.”
Irritated, Mr. Van Noy immediately looked to fire Ms. Trawick — notwithstanding Carmike’s policy of step-by-step discipline. After the weekend he got an OK from Mr. Passman, who professed to jurors his disappointment that his “high hopes for Crystal” had been dashed. The next day Mr. Van Noy told the 17-year Carmike veteran the price for her “insubordination” and the loss of his confidence.
At trial, Mr. Van Noy affirmed that the termination wasn’t based on any investigatory finding, but rather on Ms. Trawick’s internal discussions about the probe. He gave her “the option to resign” as a face-saving measure, Ms. Trawick testified, but she didn’t want to do that.
Ms. Trawick suffered from the abrupt firing “physically, emotionally, and mentally,” her husband testified — and gossip about it dogged her efforts to bounce back in Columbus’ tight business community. Although she quickly accepted a job as director of marketing for Childcare Network of Georgia, the woman she was replacing “told me she got a call that I had been fired from Carmike for stealing money,” she testified.
After she switched to a two-year gig as COO at a small local movie company, she heard the same rumors via a potential investor. “Everywhere I go, I think people are talking about it,” she said in court. “I don’t do as much in the community as I used to, because I don’t want to be … I feel shamed.”
By the time of the trial, Ms. Trawick said, she hadn’t had a job for some time. “I’m still broken,” she testified.
Mr. Van Noy, meanwhile, described himself to jurors as “retired.” Not long after he fired Ms. Trawick, the giant theater chain AMC announced it would acquire Carmike — and Mr. Van Noy was reportedly set to walk away with cash and stock worth almost $9 million.
» Read Ms. Trawick’s complaint in the case
» See a local newspaper’s calculation of how much Mr. Van Noy (and Mr. Passman) stood to earn from the AMC acquisition
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Trawick v. Carmike Cinemas, 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. Trawick was represented at trial by Prebula & Associates LLC.
This Bad Boss Offered to Be Her Mentor — But Instead Became a Tormentor
In college, Michelle Tulino set her sights on working for the New York City government — somewhere she could help people “from the ground up,” she told a court.
An internship at the city’s Department of Small Business Services (DSBS) only strengthened her resolve, as she worked happily with woman- and minority-owned businesses while reporting to a “strong woman [who] taught me how women are able to make change in society,” she testified.
After school she snagged a full-time job as client services manager at DSBS — and that’s when she met Shaazad Ali, an assistant DSBS commissioner who would turn her dream job into an ordeal.
According to Ms. Tulino’s testimony, Mr. Ali presented himself as someone who could accept H.R. complaints for the agency. When she told him that her new male boss had crudely propositioned her, however, he replied that sexual demands from managers were simply part of the DSBS culture and “he couldn’t do anything about it,” she testified.
As an alternative, she told jurors, Mr. Ali said he’d act as her personal mentor and protector.
Over the next few years, according to testimony, the assistant commissioner — married and some 30 years older than Ms. Tulino — preyed on the inexperienced employee by gaslighting her about how other managers saw her; by inviting her out and giving her gifts; by probing her private life in unwelcome ways; and by accusing her of harming his health with her rebuffs.
Eventually Mr. Ali made a place for Ms. Tulino in his own operation and installed her in a cubicle near his office. He expressed jealousy of her friendship with a male employee, he admitted in court. And in one especially unnerving display, Mr. Ali slapped himself on the face and berated himself when Ms. Tulino challenged his truthfulness, an incident he also acknowledged to jurors.
Matters reached a head immediately afterward, as Mr. Ali tried to force himself on Ms. Tulino, she testified. The shaken employee geared up to file a complaint — not with Mr. Ali this time — while he retaliated by removing her access to work tools and changing her reporting structure in what she viewed as a demotion, jurors heard.
After an internal investigation found insufficient evidence to support her allegations of harassment, Ms. Tulino testified, she was told to continue working under Mr. Ali — or to leave.
She resigned and, according to testimony, has been psychologically unable to work since.
Shaazad Ali is our new Bad Boss of the Month.
Ms. Tulino sued the City of New York, Mr. Ali, and other officials. Last year a federal jury awarded Ms. Tulino $2 million in emotional damages, later reduced by the judge to $1.5 million. Her case is currently on appeal, with arguments scheduled for mid-2020.
In court Michelle Tulino described herself as a “first-generation American” with Italian and Polish parents. Growing up in Brooklyn, she was taught to value education and hard work.
At DSBS, however, she encountered a culture where sexual favors were expected for advancement, she testified — a sharp contrast to the idyllic internship that had drawn her to the agency. At trial she cried when describing the letdown, to the point that defense attorneys griped to the judge, who declined to intervene. Continuing, Ms. Tulino told jurors of an early supervisor who bluntly told her “that he wanted to f*** me in the back of his car — excuse my language.”
She rejected the advance and approached Mr. Ali, she testified, but the assistant commissioner told her there was no Equal Employment Opportunity process at DSBS, and that “women [are expected] to have sex with the male executives.” Since she didn’t want to do that, she told jurors, Mr. Ali offered to help her “navigate the discriminatory culture.”
In an early example of such help, Ms. Tulino testified, Mr. Ali warned her that she was on the DSBS commissioner’s “s**t list” for declining an invitation to drinks. Mr. Ali said she was in danger of demotion or firing, she testified — but added that he could “help me find a way to stay employed” because “he holds the purse strings.” Mr. Ali pushed Ms. Tulino to switch jobs within DSBS, which she did.
The relationship took a darker turn, Ms. Tulino told jurors, when Mr. Ali began informing her that “his male colleagues and friends” were calling her a “slut” and a “whore” and wanted nude photographs of her — news that she described as “a slap in the face.”
“I wanted him to do something about it,” she testified. “I wanted him to write them up, make a report about it, do something to punish them for it. … And he said, ‘You can’t change the way people think.'”
Ms. Tulino withdrew from him as a result, she told jurors, but Mr. Ali became persistent: He sent “continuous e-mails, voice mails, phone calls”; came to her desk and left notes asking why she wouldn’t answer his calls; even texted her as she attended the funeral of a coworker’s husband, asking “where I was and why wasn’t I answering the phone.”
Mr. Ali complained of being unappreciated, she said at trial, accusing her of causing him ulcers and painting her as “worst person in the world” for being cold to him. Finally he cornered her in a dark area near the freight elevators, she testified.
“You are treating me like a dog,” she said he told her angrily. “How could you do this to me?” Ms. Tulino testified that she was “very, very fearful” as she finally saw “the real face of Shaz Ali,” which she described being “almost like a bear coming at you.”
For some time after that explosion, she said, things calmed down. Ms. Tulino switched jobs again, seeking a promotion that Mr. Ali told her was elusive because other managers believed salacious rumors about her — or because only he recognized her skills, she testified.
Frustrated, Ms. Tulino finally took a job with Mr. Ali as her direct supervisor. It came with a price: She was now “under his complete control all day long,” she said at trial.
Even within his own group, Mr. Ali made Ms. Tulino aware that she faced obstacles: Several co-workers now believed that she was sleeping with Mr. Ali, she testified — and he seemed not only to tolerate these false rumors, but to relish discussing them.
Mr. Ali’s creepiness kept escalating, according to court documents. In her complaint in the case, Ms. Tulino alleged that Mr. Ali asked her for “special pictures” of herself and revealed that he was using her birth date for all his own passwords, she alleged.
Mr. Ali also got physical, she said in court. In one incident, she testified, he grabbed her wrist as they passed in the hallway and spun her around. She was upset because she had just received bad news about her father’s health. “He starts to embrace me and put his face closer to me,” she recalled. “I couldn’t break his grasp.”
Ms. Tulino’s father died shortly afterward, and she began talking with a male coworker who had also lost a parent. Mr. Ali became jealous, according to Ms. Tulino, and told her she shouldn’t be talking to other men. She ignored him.
Finally, Ms. Tulino testified, Mr. Ali called her into his office on November 12, 2014, and again told her to “limit my conversations with that boy — that man.” People were talking about them, Mr. Ali claimed, and now “he has to answer” to the agency’s H.R. director for her actions, she testified.
“It’s always the same story” with Mr. Ali, she said in court. “Someone’s talking about you. I have to protect you about it.”
Except this time, Ms. Tulino testified, she broke the pattern.
“This day was the day,” she told jurors. “This was like a culmination of everything. All the years, all the days, every day …. And I said, I don’t believe you. I don’t believe a thing you’re saying.”
It was then, she recalled, that “Mr. Ali lost his mind.”
“He was slapping himself in the face, calling himself ‘Stupid, stupid — I’m so stupid, I should have left you in [the previous, lesser job] where you belong.'”
In the courtroom, the jury heard a recording that Ms. Tulino had surreptitiously made of the confrontation. Mr. Ali admitted to its content — including his expression of jealousy — and also admitted that he had slapped himself, although he indicated in court that it was more of a “gesture” than a real slap.
Mr. Ali saw Ms. Tulino as a “special friend,” he testified, but he didn’t try to kiss her or force himself on her in any way.
As the November 14 confrontation ended, Ms. Tulino told Mr. Ali she would file a complaint with the agency’s internal EEO office — and Mr. Ali told her in turn that she was “finished.” As she got ready to leave, however, Mr. Ali walked into her cubicle and pushed her against a filing cabinet, she testified.
“He [had] his leg in between my legs,” she told the court. “And he’s holding my arms down and we’re struggling. And he’s trying to kiss me and I’m pushing him off and pushing him off.”
Mr. Ali testified that the incident never happened.
A few days later, Mr. Ali ordered Ms. Tulino to turn in her BlackBerry mobile phone and took other actions that she reported to the agency’s H.R. office as retaliatory. She followed up with an EEO complaint against Mr. Ali.
Meanwhile, Ms. Tulino testified, she was assigned to a new supervisor a level lower than Mr. Ali; frozen out of meetings; and given fewer assignments. “Eventually all of my work was taken away,” she told jurors.
The following May, the EEO investigation ended inconclusively. Although the report recommended a reassignment if possible, Ms. Tulino testified that officials told her in person to “go back to Shaazad Ali, or you have no place here.” Her complaint, she claimed they told her, had “offended the agency.”
Ms. Tulino resigned in early June. She told jurors that her dignity and self-esteem had been destroyed, that she was on multiple medications — including for nightmares — and that “every day is gray.” She has panic attacks “every single day,” she said; she doesn’t have friends, doesn’t socialize, and doesn’t feel comfortable in crowds.
The jury found Mr. Ali not liable on a claim of battery. U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff, meanwhile, dismissed Ms. Tulino’s claim for constructive discharge before it reached the jury — an outcome that her lawyers have appealed. Ms. Tulino’s $2 million award for emotional damages was excessive, Judge Rakoff ruled, knocking it down to a still-hefty $1.5 million while awarding attorney fees of more than $675,000.
Mr. Ali was relieved of his duties immediately after the trial but was allowed to retire with a likely six-figure pension, according to media reports.
» Read Ms. Tulino’s second amended complaint
» Read Judge Rakoff’s rationale for reducing Ms. Tulino’s damages award
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Tulino v. City of New York. 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. Tulino was represented at trial by PGP Law Group, LLC.