Facing a Bias Complaint, This Bad Boss Used a Café Surveillance Cam to Get His Accuser Fired
Yes, Tim Pruitt took a half-sandwich from the work cafeteria without paying for it.
But, no, he later testified, he did not steal that sandwich — his friend had paid for it ahead of time, as the friend confirmed under oath.
And yes, he failed to record a few hours properly on a time card — but it was an error made in haste, he testified, to which he had admitted as soon as he was notified.
Regardless, Mr. Pruitt was fired for these seemingly minor offenses by his boss at Genentech, Inc., Steven Graeff, who had been watching Mr. Pruitt extra-closely ever since the African American help desk technician reported him for unfair treatment, according to testimony.
To support the termination, Mr. Graeff teamed up with Mr. Pruitt’s former boss Daniel Williams — who also had been accused of racial bias by Mr. Pruitt, and who was a close work friend of Mr. Graeff — to ask Genentech’s security officer to pull video surveillance tapes of Mr. Pruitt’s movements, both men testified.
The two men confronted Mr. Pruitt with the accusations together, even though Mr. Williams had “no good reason” to be present, in the words of a judge who reviewed the matter, and Mr. Pruitt was quickly marched out of the California biotech company, where he had worked for 21 years, by a guard.
Steven Graeff is our new Bad Boss of the Month.
Mr. Pruitt filed a lawsuit against Genentech, claiming unlawful discrimination and retaliation, among other things. A federal judge allowed the retaliation-related claims to proceed and, in mid-2019, a jury awarded the fired employee nearly $235,000 in damages. An appeal was filed, but the case recently ended in a settlement.
For most of his two decades at Genentech, Mr. Pruitt testified, his experience had been positive. Raised with 10 siblings in a modest household in nearby Benicia, Calif., he earned an associate’s degree locally and was proud to have risen to earn more than $100,000 a year. He viewed Genentech as a “great company,” he told the jury, and he built friendships there that extended outside of work. He took vacations with colleagues to Athens, to see the 2004 Olympics, and to Brazil, to see the 2014 World Cup. His daughter got a job at the company, too.
Mr. Pruitt had started out as a contractor for the Bay Area company. In 1998 he was hired full-time and became the first IT employee to work at Genentech’s manufacturing facility in Vacaville, Calif., where he earned positive performance reviews for years. Mr. Williams was his manager for much of this time — and in 2012, according to testimony, he became the subject of Mr. Pruitt’s first discrimination complaint after writing a “performance counseling document” that Mr. Pruitt felt treated him differently than white employees.
Genentech cleared Mr. Williams, who is white, of racial bias. But it also instructed him to amend the counseling document, according to court filings. Mr. Williams followed up with a performance evaluation that was the lowest of Mr. Pruitt’s career — an act that Mr. Pruitt viewed as retaliatory, especially considering the awards he had received that year, he said in a court filing.
Mr. Williams ultimately moved to another position at Vacaville and Genentech hired Mr. Graeff, who also is white, to replace him. The two managers quickly became tight, eating lunch together two or three times a week, Mr. Graeff said in court. For the remainder of Mr. Pruitt’s time at Genentech, Mr. Williams kept popping up at key moments — despite being outside Mr. Pruitt’s chain of command.
Mr. Williams “is like Forrest Gump, only nefarious as far as we’re concerned,” one of Mr. Pruitt’s lawyers said at a hearing in the case.
At first, Mr. Pruitt told the jury, he was excited that Mr. Williams had been replaced by Mr. Graeff: “You know — new ideas, new manager.” Before long, however, he found that Mr. Graeff was watching his every move, according to testimony. The new manager would hover around Mr. Pruitt, track his breaks, and examine his time cards closely, a level of attention that Mr. Graeff didn’t undertake for white workers, according to court filings.
After being denied a promotion, Mr. Pruitt complained to Genentech’s employee relations department about unfair treatment. Soon afterward, he testified, Mr. Graeff started raising issues about time card inaccuracy. In a one-on-one meeting with the manager, Mr. Pruitt complained of feeling singled out, he told jurors, and Mr. Graeff reacted by being “very rude” to him. Stressed out, Mr. Pruitt began seeing a therapist and took an approved leave for depression and anxiety.
Mr. Pruitt wasn’t the only person feeling bias from Mr. Graeff. In a deposition, a contractor of Afghani national origin said he sometimes drove home “crying all the way” because Mr. Graeff had treated him abusively while questioning every aspect of his time card reports.
“I was afraid to even go to lunch,” testified Humayon Sarwari. “I brought food from home all the time, because I didn’t even want to go to the cafeteria, because when he’d see me [Mr. Graeff would say,] ‘What are you doing here?'” According to Mr. Sarwari, Mr. Graeff never acted this way toward white workers, who saw him as an “awesome guy.”
“He was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Mr. Sarwari testified.
(Jurors didn’t hear from Mr. Sarwari or some other witnesses because the judge focused the trial on events in June and July 2016 that might count as retaliation against Mr. Pruitt.)
Not long after Mr. Pruitt returned from his medical leave, he complained again to Genentech about Mr. Graeff’s behavior — this time explicitly labeling it as race discrimination. Genentech opened an investigation but didn’t interview Mr. Pruitt, according to court documents.
About a month later, on July 13, 2016, with the investigation still under way, Mr. Graeff sent Mr. Pruitt to work for a day at Genentech’s nearby office in Dixon, Calif., to cover for an employee who was out. Mr. Pruitt later told jurors that he left Dixon at lunchtime to pick up a prescription back in Vacaville — he suffers from glaucoma and was in pain — and was late returning because of traffic. He then left the Dixon office early because he was still feeling ill. He checked to ensure there were no important tasks pending, and he informed the site administrator, he testified.
Mr. Graeff, meanwhile, had decided to visit the Dixon facility that very afternoon. He asked Mr. Williams to come along with him — to make an introduction to an official whom he hadn’t yet met, he testified. (Mr. Graeff had been working at Genentech for about a year by now, according to filings.) He stopped by Mr. Pruitt’s desk and found him gone.
Mr. Graeff didn’t call Mr. Pruitt’s cellphone to get an explanation, nor did he tell Mr. Pruitt the next day, when they both were working in Vacaville, that he had failed to find him at Dixon. Instead, he told jurors, he waited another day and — while Mr. Pruitt was out — called the Dixon facility to ask for surveillance video so that he could clock Mr. Pruitt’s comings and goings.
As it turned out, Mr. Pruitt hadn’t yet filed a time card for the week in question. He believed he had done so, he testified, but it never registered in the system. (He had been having a technical issue, which he had previously reported to Genentech people including Mr. Graeff.) When Mr. Pruitt returned to work after the weekend, Mr. Graeff ordered him to file his card immediately. Mr. Pruitt complied within minutes — but in his haste he entered his standard hours for the day at Dixon, he testified, rather than reflecting the time he had missed.
Mr. Graeff didn’t discuss this discrepancy with his employee for almost two weeks, he acknowledged in court, until the day Mr. Pruitt was escorted from the building.
Then, on July 21, came the half-sandwich incident.
Mr. Pruitt had arranged to meet a friend, Thomas Barillaro, in the Genentech cafeteria. At a deposition, Mr. Barillaro testified that he paid for Mr. Pruitt’s lunch in advance, as he often did — but that Mr. Pruitt was delayed, so he left and assumed that Mr. Pruitt would pick up his pre-paid BLT later.
And indeed, on that day Mr. Pruitt walked into the cafeteria, got a half-sandwich, and walked out without paying. Unluckily for Mr. Pruitt, Mr. Graeff was in the cafeteria at the time — he was waiting for Mr. Williams, he testified — and saw the incident. He believed he had seen Mr. Pruitt stealing and, as Mr. Pruitt’s lawyer described it in court, the manager’s videotaped reaction resembled “a little victory dance.”
Once more Mr. Graeff didn’t ask Mr. Pruitt to explain himself. Instead, after lunch, he and Mr. Williams went to the Vacaville security office and asked for surveillance tape of the incident — which they later watched together with an employee relations representative, according to testimony.
A security specialist named Javier Vargaz dug a bit deeper, interviewing the cafeteria cashier on the same day as the incident. According to a declaration filed in the case, the cashier confirmed that an unknown “friend” had paid for Mr. Pruitt’s food that day. But the cashier’s account didn’t exactly match the video and, according to the document filed by Genentech, Mr. Vargaz concluded that the cashier must have been recollecting a separate incident “at some other time” than shown on the tape.
Throughout this time, Mr. Graeff had been communicating with the Genentech official responsible for investigating Mr. Pruitt’s claim of discrimination against him — and feeding the investigator, at the same time, his allegations of Mr. Pruitt’s own wrongdoing, according to testimony. No one informed Mr. Pruitt that he was under a cloud, however, or asked for his side of the story.
On July 25, Genentech informed Mr. Graeff (but not Mr. Pruitt) that the discrimination probe was over, and that the manager had been cleared. Mr. Graeff immediately made plans to put Mr. Pruitt on administrative leave — a likely prelude to firing — based on the time card and sandwich incidents, according to testimony.
The following day, Mr. Pruitt arrived at his desk to find a new meeting with Mr. Graeff on his calendar. He walked to Mr. Graeff’s office, only to be led to a small conference room where — to his surprise — Mr. Williams was waiting. When Mr. Pruitt expressed confusion about why Mr. Williams was present, he testified, Mr. Graeff said his friend was there to “help answer questions.”
In the event, Mr. Graeff, a former military police officer, did the speaking. He revealed that Mr. Pruitt had filed an incorrect time card for the day at Dixon — something Mr. Pruitt quickly acknowledged as a mistake — and also said that Mr. Pruitt had been caught on tape stealing a sandwich. It was the first time the employee had heard either accusation.
Flustered at Mr. Williams’ presence and Mr. Graeff’s hostile tone, Mr. Pruitt told the men he had paid for the sandwich before he even knew what day Mr. Graeff was talking about — a response that Genentech cited repeatedly as a “lie” at trial.
“I was very nervous and uncomfortable,” he told jurors. “And basically, I just knew [that] no matter what I said, it wouldn’t matter at that point.”
Mr. Pruitt was placed on leave, escorted out of the building, and shown to his car. Later that day, in a call with Genentech employee relations, he learned that his race discrimination complaint against Mr. Graeff had been closed, according to court documents.
The following day, Mr. Pruitt told jurors, Mr. Graeff called him at home to fire him officially — but first, he said, the manager noted that “he was putting me on speakerphone because Dan Williams was there with him also.”
After dropping the hammer, Mr. Graeff started to explain some logistical matters. A distraught Mr. Pruitt simply hung up. “I started crying,” he told the jury, “and I didn’t want [them] to hear that.”
Mr. Pruitt was 54 at the time he was fired and banned from Genentech’s facilities. He continues to look for a new job, he told jurors, but he is constrained by his age, his two-year degree, and his ongoing health problems. In 2017 his glaucoma finally caused him to lose vision in his left eye, he said, and back pain limits how far he can commute.
At trial his partner testified that the formerly social Mr. Pruitt became subdued and despondant after the firing, and saw his friends much less often. He couldn’t sleep properly anymore, she said, and now gets up several times a night to pace around the house. He continues to see a therapist and take anti-anxiety medication, according to testimony.
Mr. Pruitt did feel “great” when he got one temporary job, he said in court, but that position expired after four months and he returned to fruitless job-hunting. “I almost feel like I don’t have a life,” he said. His partner has taken a part-time retail job to help make ends meet, even though she had previously retired, he testified.
In court last year, jury members never learned of Mr. Pruitt’s explanation for the sandwich incident, since the judge had ruled it irrelevant to his specific retaliation claims. They didn’t hear Mr. Barillaro’s testimony that he had paid for his friend, or that the cafeteria cashier had confirmed the story — albeit with different details — before the firing. Instead, Genentech emphasized Mr. Pruitt’s “lie” about paying.
Nonetheless, the jury found that Mr. Pruitt’s termination was unlawfully based on his discrimination complaint against Mr. Graeff, and awarded him damages for past economic loss and emotional distress. He received no provision for ongoing harm, however, and in his appeal his attorneys said the trial judge had unfairly kept some matters out of the jury’s hands.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ordered the case into mediation, where the parties reached an undisclosed settlement. The matter was dismissed in November 2019.
» Read Mr. Pruitt’s complaint (originally filed in state court)
» Read the declaration of Javier Vargaz, the Genentech employee who quizzed the cafeteria cashier
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Pruitt v. Genentech, Inc. We select “Bad Boss” cases to illustrate the continuing relevance of employee protection laws for our newsletter’s audience, which includes attorneys and former TELG clients.
Mr. Pruitt was represented in this case by the McHenry Law Firm and Levy, Vinick, Burrell, Hyams.
This Bad Boss Priest Cast the First Stone — at an Eighth Grade Teacher
Single mom Kourtney Liggins had worked for almost four years as an eighth-grade teacher at Transfiguration Elementary School, a Catholic school in Los Angeles, when Father Michael Tang, the school’s pastor, called her to his office.
Fr. Tang said he had heard Ms. Liggins was pregnant, she later told a court; accordingly, he asked her to stop acting as a youth minister because she was, as she said he put it, “morally corrupt.”
“Does it even have a father?” the priest inquired about the unborn child, a girl, according to testimony from Ms. Liggins, who also was Fr. Tang’s parishioner. “I don’t want to see it on this campus. I don’t want to see it at church.”
Hurt and upset, Ms. Liggins dropped much of her religious work but remained as a teacher at Transfiguration. She was approved for a year’s maternity leave upon her daughter’s birth that summer, but was called back early — and at lower pay — after Fr. Tang clashed with her substitute, she testified.
Just a few months after her return, she met again with Fr. Tang and was shocked to hear him claim that Transfiguration parents were now complaining about her. She told the court this was the first time she heard of any criticism — and further, that she came to believe that Fr. Tang had altered employment records and rewarded some of the parents for their complaints.
One week later, Ms. Liggins received a bad year-end review; Fr. Tang said she’d be suspended if she did not sign it, according to court documents. Backed up by a HR official, Ms. Liggins refused. A month later, however, she was told not to return for the next school year.
Michael Tang is our new Bad Boss of the Month.
Ms. Liggins filed a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and Fr. Tang, among others. After a trial in October 2018, an L.A. County jury awarded her almost $3.6 million in compensation, plus a levy of $87,500 to punish Fr. Tang personally for his “outrageous” conduct. In January the judge invalidated part of that verdict, however, and ordered a new trial on damages alone. No one was happy, and the tangled outcome is now on appeal.
An experienced educator, Ms. Liggins had begun subbing at Transfiguration in 2007, not long after her sister, Mechele Yerima, became principal. It was her second stint at the school, which serves a diverse community of modest means; she had worked there from 1998 to 2003 and “really enjoyed” it. In 2008, Ms. Liggins was promoted to teach eighth graders a range of subjects from science to music to spelling. Often called Mrs. Johnson at school because she had children at Transfiguration with that surname from a previous marriage, she said she had no performance issues until her run-in with Fr. Tang.
Fr. Tang, meanwhile, had arrived at Transfiguration in 2010. A diocesan priest who teaches art and art history at nearby Loyola Marymount University, a Catholic institution with a close relationship to Transfiguration, he moved in a very different world than Ms. Liggins. He is a talented watercolorist and equestrian enthusiast who promotes himself as “America’s premier sporting artist”; his flattering horse-and-rider paintings are owned by society figures such as the Bertam Firestones and Jane Forbes Clark, and by tony institutions including The International Museum of the Horse.
Originally a Jesuit, Fr. Tang told a writer that he left that order partly because its vow of poverty conflicted with his wish to ride and show horses. On his Web site he solicits equestrian painting commissions, promising to capture “you and your favorite mount in pigment for posterity.” His About the Artist page features a glamorous studio photo and no hint of his vocation — although he was profiled as “The Holy Horseman” by UnTacked, a glossy supplement to The Chronicle of the Horse, appearing in his priestly collar as the cover model.
As pastor for Transfiguration, Fr. Tang technically did not supervise the teachers except in their religious role. But as a practical matter, according to testimony including his own, he drove many of the school’s staffing decisions.
Ms. Liggins told jurors that her relationship with Fr. Tang was good at first. He seemed to take an interest in her family, sometimes calling one of her daughters out of class to watch over his “babies” — his Jack Russell terriers, a breed that’s highly valued by fox hunters.
But things changed when the priest learned that she was expecting a child with her boyfriend, an L.A. school district administrator named Adrian Magee, according to Ms. Liggins. At trial, Fr. Tang denied that he judged Ms. Liggins for having an out-of-wedlock birth: “If I had that problem … we wouldn’t have a school,” he said, noting about that half the families at Transfiguration, and at least one other teacher, were in a similar situation.
At the same time, he acknowledged in testimony, he did tell Ms. Liggins not to bring her newborn to school — and he said he was bound, as her pastor, to find that her pregnancy violated “the philosophies and teachings of the Catholic church.”
With two other children enrolled at Transfiguration, Ms. Liggins didn’t want to lose her job. She reported Fr. Tang’s seeming bias to an HR official and to the bishop himself, Fr. Tang’s boss. The bishop’s response, according to filings: He asked her to “pray on it.”
When Ms. Liggins returned to school early from maternity leave, she placed her baby in daycare across the street so that she could leave during lunch to nurse her. But around the same time, she testified, Transfiguration vice principal Evelyn Rickenbacker started scheduling teacher meetings at lunchtime, causing Ms. Liggins to miss out on important updates. Ms. Rickenbacker told her, she said, to “decide which is more important” — the meetings or the nursing.
The vice principal “would always say … ‘I’m sorry things aren’t to your liking, Mrs. Obama,” Ms. Liggins recalled in a deposition.
Both women are African American.
Ms. Liggins began to feel frozen out. At mass on Sundays, she testified, Fr. Tang declined to shake her hand as he did with other parishioners after the service. To make matters worse, her sister Ms. Yerima decided to resign as principal. Ms. Rickenbacker, herself a Transfiguration alumna, was named to fill the slot, and she and Fr. Tang started talking about refreshing the staff, according to Ms. Liggins’ testimony.
Tensions rose quickly. At a meeting that Ms. Liggins believed would be about financial aid for her children, Fr. Tang and Ms. Rickenbacker informed her of parent complaints about “frequent lateness, absences and cell phone use in the class,” according to testimony — but offered no documentation. Blindsided, Ms. Liggins sensed a set-up and flagged the issue to HR immediately.
Five days later, Mr. Magee — Ms. Liggins’ partner and father of their infant daughter — showed up without notice at Ms. Rickenbacker’s classroom to observe Ms. Liggins’ son Jonathan. Ms. Rickenbacker felt intimidated by Mr. Magee’s “glaring,” she told jurors, although she conceded that class observation by family members was an acceptable practice.
Then Mr. Magee accompanied Ms. Liggins to a meeting that Fr. Tang and Ms. Rickenbacker had scheduled to discuss Ms. Liggins’ work performance — and matters really escalated. According to a court filing by Ms. Liggins, the priest told Mr. Magee he couldn’t join the meeting, called him “an uppity-a** Creole n***er,” and banned him from the Transfiguration campus, an incident that jurors didn’t hear about.
Fr. Tang, who is of Chinese descent, then convened some of the school’s administrators and, according to meeting minutes later filed in the case, told them that he was aware of “all the comments and negativity” and “false rumors and petitions” circulating about him, and of “attempts to sabotage his work here.” Any staff member who was insubordinate, he warned — even to the extent of “eye-rolling” — could face termination: As pastor, he said, he had “ultimate authority and power” over the school, including firing power, according to the document.
Indeed, Fr. Tang had been exercising that power lately, jurors heard. Besides directing Ms. Yerima to fire Ms. Liggins’ long-term substitute for “badmouthing” him, he also let go a vice principal in part for “insubordinate behavior,” he said at trial. Another ex-Transfiguration official testified that he was fired after complaining that Fr. Tang had shown up to school meetings — including a PTA meeting — smelling of alcohol and acting “discombobulated.”
Ms. Liggins’ exit from the school took several weeks to play out. She withdrew her kids before the end of the school year, she testified, because they were being “targeted.” Fr. Tang finally provided letters to bolster his claims of parent complaints — but, he admitted in court, they were written after his initial meeting with Ms. Liggins, whose attorney intimated in court that the letters had been obtained in exchange for the priest’s help with debt and scholarships.
In the end, Ms. Liggins learned that her contract would not be renewed via a letter that she received at her parents’ home — and opened in front of her father, she testified, feeling “embarrassed” and “afraid.”
“It was devastating,” she told jurors.
Unable to find a full-time teaching job again, she had to switch all but one of her kids to public school. For a while she continued to attend Fr. Tang’s mass at Transfiguration Church, but it soon became “unbearable” and she found another parish.
“There were times” when she considered suicide, she testified.
The jurors ultimately found for Ms. Liggins on two claims — wrongful termination by the archdiocese and intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) by the archdiocese and by Fr. Tang. They awarded her more than $275,000 in economic damages, a further $3.3 million for pain and suffering, and $87,500 as punishment for Fr. Tang specifically.
According to the trial judge, however, Ms. Liggins technically wasn’t terminated: Her contract simply wasn’t renewed for another term, which can’t support a wrongful termination judgment in California, according to his order. Since the jury’s awards were lump sums, not allocated between claims, the judge ordered a new trial on the amount Ms. Liggins should receive for the IIED claim alone. Both sides appealed and the matter likely won’t be resolved until next year.
» Read Ms. Liggins’ first amended complaint
» Read about Fr. Tang’s horsy lifestyle via the profile in UnTacked, “The Intertwined Passions of Father Michael Tang”
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Liggins v. Archdiocese of Los Angeles. 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. Liggins is represented in this case by Shegerian & Associates.
This Bad Boss Fired a Survivor of Throat Cancer After Hearing How He Spoke Post-Surgery
For Troy Coachman, working as finance director for a Mercedes-Benz dealership meant he had reached “the pinnacle of the car industry.”
And by all accounts the sharp-dressed Mr. Coachman excelled at his job, which was to persuade luxury-car purchasers to buy extra products and protections as he did their paperwork. “One of the best,” is how Al Monjazeb, the owner of Mercedes-Benz of Seattle — and Mr. Coachman’s former boss — described him at trial.
So why did Mr. Monjazeb fire his star employee, as he testified he did?
In 2014, shortly after receiving a promotion and more than six years after joining the dealership, the 50-year-old Mr. Coachman was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx, or voice box. Surgeons eventually removed his larynx and vocal cords and inserted a voice prosthesis — a device that allowed him to speak, albeit in a different voice, by activating a button at his throat.
Near the end of that year, after weathering several medical setbacks, Mr. Coachman was preparing to return to work from a period of unpaid leave. He visited the Mercedes dealership, where he ran into Mr. Monjazeb. It was the first time the men had met since Mr. Coachman’s surgery and, according to testimony, Mr. Monjazeb was taken aback by his employee’s still-healing stoma — the opening in his neck that allowed him to breathe — and also by his overall appearance and a voice that Mr. Monjazeb described at trial as “whisper-like” and hard to understand.
Mr. Coachman testified that he was on “voice rest” at the time, to allow his throat to finish healing.
The dealership’s former general manager, who had scheduled Mr. Coachman’s return, said at trial that Mr. Monjazeb told him that high-end Mercedes customers might be “bothered” by Mr. Coachman’s stoma and altered speech. Mr. Monjazeb instructed the GM to stop talking with Mr. Coachman and to let him handle the matter instead, the GM testified.
Not long after, Mr. Monjazeb fired Mr. Coachman via e-mail.
Al Monjazeb is our new Bad Boss of the Month.
Mr. Coachman filed a lawsuit against the dealership and against Mr. Monjazeb personally, claiming violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and also a Washington State law against discrimination. After a seven-day trial in late 2018, a federal jury sided unanimously with Mr. Coachman and awarded him nearly $5 million in damages — an outcome that’s now under appeal at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, where it will likely be argued this winter.
Until he was fired, Troy Coachman’s successful work life had provided a welcome contrast to his traumatic family background. Raised by an abusive single mother who had “a lot of boyfriends” and walked around their low-income duplex home “butt-naked,” according to the testimony of a childhood friend, Mr. Coachman told the court he was rejected by a father who didn’t accept his son’s homosexuality, and that he also became estranged from his twin brother.
Mr. Coachman escaped into work at an early age, the friend testified, progressing quickly up the ladder at Taco Time restaurants, moving into banking, and finally finding his calling in auto sales and financing. When he first got the opportunity to represent the Mercedes-Benz brand, she said, “I noticed this new glow to him. It was like he was on top of the world.”
Another friend told the court: “Given his childhood, I think Mercedes … was a statement for him as to where he came from — and where he was now.”
Known for his strong bonds with customers, his smart suits, and his wide selection of ties, Mr. Coachman also earned a reputation for great financial results. At Mr. Monjazeb’s luxe dealership he performed at nearly twice the level of his peers, according to deposition testimony from Jason Graham, the dealership’s former GM.
Little surprise, then, that Mr. Graham wanted Mr. Coachman to return to work after his cancer surgery — and that he was mulling how to shuffle staff assignments to make it happen, according to testimony.
Mr. Graham told the court that he scheduled the cancer survivor’s return for January 2, 2015, a date blessed by Mr. Coachman’s doctor, even though the GM wasn’t sure what position Mr. Coachman would initially fill, given his still-developing mastery of the voice prosthesis. And Mr. Monjazeb seemed fine with that plan, Mr. Graham testified, until a meeting in which the “very upset” owner suddenly asserted he had never said the finance director could come back — a statement Mr. Graham said was false.
“Al told [me and another manager] just to leave it alone,” he told jurors. “He was going to take care of it, and to stay out of it.”
Mr. Coachman now needed to meet with Mr. Monjazeb so the owner could judge his ability to work, he was told — even though, as Mr. Monjazeb admitted in a deposition, the owner’s brief single encounter with Mr. Coachman had already convinced him that there was “no way” he could do his job.
“After that last meeting …,” he testified, “my brain knew that he can’t come back.”
In any event, the men never met. Mr. Monjazeb said he was too busy — and then, after Mr. Coachman pressed his desire to return, Mr. Monjazeb ended his employment, saying that the dealership had filled his position, according to court documents. Mr. Monjazeb asked an HR person to do the deed on his behalf, via e-mail, and acknowledged in court that Mr. Coachman was fired because of his voice.
Mr. Graham told jurors he wasn’t consulted about Mr. Coachman’s termination, and didn’t believe it made sense.
“Normally, when an employee is returning from a health issue,” the former GM testified, “you find some type of position they — I guess reasonable accommodation for whatever is going on with their health.” Firing Mr. Coachman rather than somehow easing him back into the dealership, he said, “never crossed my mind.”
At trial, Mr. Coachman recounted his shock and humiliation over the “callous” e-mail.
“I was really disappointed in … how they handled the situation with me,” he testified. “I am different — obviously, look at me. I sound different. Yes, my tone is off a little bit, but it’s still me. I am still Troy. … All I wanted was a chance to be able to prove that I could do my job.”
What’s more, Mr. Coachman told the court, his self-funded disability insurance policy had just stopped paying benefits because his doctor had certified his ability to work — so suddenly he had no source of income.
“I was crushed for him,” his childhood friend testified. “I mean, … all that man knows is work.”
Mr. Coachman quickly snagged a temporary, lesser-paying job at a nearby Subaru dealership, filling in for someone who was taking an extended vacation to Australia. He went through a normal hiring process, according to testimony, with no red flags raised about his voice or his ability to perform.
Just a month after being fired by Mr. Monjazeb, Mr. Coachman began working on the Subaru sales floor to familiarize himself with the brand, then switched to his accustomed finance position.
“Customers loved him,” Wendy Borgert, who managed Mr. Coachman directly in his finance role, recalled in testimony. “He did great … he was actually number one in my department. He had the highest warranty penetration; highest dollar per car; no customer complaints; very, very minimal charge-backs. I mean, he did great.”
In the meantime, Mr. Coachman had lawyered up. In an exchange of letters via their respective attorneys, Mr. Monjazeb ended up offering Mr. Coachman his old job back — but again insisted on meeting his former employee before setting a start date.
“I still would have had to made sure that his communication levels were OK,” Mr. Monjazeb explained in a deposition — although, at trial, he claimed he wanted only “an ordinary conversation I would have with any employees coming on board.”
Mr. Coachman, who was still working at Subaru at the time, declined. The offer was just a reaction to his legal representation, he testified.
“Why did anybody think that I would go back to a place like that,” he asked the court, “after over and over being told, ‘Oh, take your time, take your time’ — and then I get ready to come back and … I’m fired? … I just didn’t feel safe going back.”
Mr. Coachman finished his Subaru stint and soon afterward, sadly, learned that his cancer had metastasized to his lungs. Within a few months he was totally disabled, according to court documents, and his treatment triggered a further condition known as chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy, which prevented him from working. Since he could no longer afford payments on the house he had owned for 14 years, he sold it and moved 50 miles south of Seattle to a mobile home.
The sociable Mr. Coachman told jurors that he stopped having parties and inviting people over. The emotional impact, he testified, was severe — but he “never thought thought I wasn’t going to beat it, especially the third time.”
At trial, Mr. Coachman said he remains on therapy for cancer but “I’m two-and-a-half years no recurrence, so I feel great. … I’m lucky to be sitting here.”
Just a few weeks before the trial, he started his first job since the temporary Subaru gig, working as a finance director for Larson Automotive Group in Tacoma, Wash.
“Are you happy to be back at work?” he was asked in court.
“You have no idea,” he answered.
» Read Mr. Coachman’s complaint
» Read the trial judge’s post-trial order rejecting numerous arguments from Mr. Monjazeb, including the idea that the jury’s award was excessive
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Coachman v. Seattle Auto Management, Inc. We select “Bad Boss” cases to illustrate the continuing relevance of employee protection laws for our newsletter’s audience, which includes attorneys and former TELG clients.
During this case, Mr. Coachman was represented by Frank Freed Subit & Thomas and Schroeter Goldmark & Bender.
Jurors Backed a Stutterer — and Made This Bad Boss Choke on His Words
For Augustine Caldera, a longtime corrections officer, speaking in front of Sgt. James Grove — his superior at a California prison — often led to humiliation, according to a state appeals court.
Mr. Caldera has stuttered since he was 12. When he did so at the California Institution for Men in Chino, Calif., Mr. Grove would ape his disability in a schoolyard display aimed at their co-workers — on one occasion even jumping onto the prison’s radio system to mimic an announcement in which Mr. Caldera had stammered, the court said in an opinion.
In another incident, after Mr. Grove had mocked him in front of two dozen fellow officers, Mr. Caldera asked the sergeant to stop.
“F- f- f- f**k you,” replied Mr. Grove, according to the opinion.
When Mr. Caldera warned that he’d lodge a complaint, the court said, Mr. Grove replied: “I don’t give a fu- fu- f**k — fi- fi- file on me. Make sure you get my name right.”
Mr. Caldera did request an investigation, according to testimony, but within days he learned that his situation would get even worse. Mr. Grove wouldn’t face significant discipline; instead he would become Mr. Caldera’s direct supervisor.
James Grove is our new Bad Boss of the Month.
In the end Mr. Caldera filed a lawsuit against the state of California, the California prison system, and Mr. Grove individually, claiming disability-based harassment and a hostile work environment, among other things. At trial a state jury awarded Mr. Caldera $500,000 in damages, an award that was affirmed in 2018 after dueling appeals. In February 2019 the trial judge added almost $870,000 in costs and attorney fees.
Mr. Grove’s actions were responsible for 25 percent of the damages, the jury said, with the remainder allotted to the prison system for its actions and its inaction.
Mr. Caldera’s stuttering never affected his prison work, which mainly involved escorting troubled inmates to and from mental-health appointments. The prison’s chief psychologist called him an “outstanding” officer and testified that Mr. Grove’s tormenting, which the psychologist said he witnessed at least a dozen times, was mean-spirited and contributed to a “culture of joking” against Mr. Caldera.
Other officers joined in, according to testimony, calling Mr. Caldera nicknames such as “Mumbles” and “Machine Gun.”
The ridicule wore Mr. Caldera down, and he testified that he suffered “paranoia, anxiety, and distress.” After Mr. Grove’s mocking radio transmission — heard by as many as 100 prison employees — a sympathetic officer noted Mr. Caldera’s evident shock and “saddened” expression, the officer recalled in testimony.
“That’s kind of [messed] up, on the radio like that,” the officer later said to Mr. Caldera.
“Yeah, I get it all the time,” sighed Mr. Caldera.
Mr. Grove’s subsequent “get my name right” taunt — witnessed by the psychologist and plenty of others, according to the appellate opinion — was the trigger for Mr. Caldera finally to make an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaint.
Just days later, however, Mr. Grove’s superior, a lieutenant, put Mr. Grove in line for direct oversight of Mr. Caldera. The two higher-ranking officers had worked together at another facility and sometime socialized together, according to testimony, but the lieutenant claimed in court documents that he showed no bias when giving Mr. Grove this upper hand.
As for the disciplinary issue, the lieutenant decided that Mr. Grove’s punishment should be to sign a generic list of job expectations, which Mr. Caldera later called “a slap on the hand,” according to court records.
In later testimony, the lieutenant would call Mr. Caldera a “liar” for his claims of discrimination — while the appellate court, in an interim opinion before the trial, flagged the lieutenant’s account of events as a possible cover for discrimination.
For several weeks, a panicky Mr. Caldera met with anyone he thought might be able to stop Mr. Grove from becoming his direct boss. Nothing changed: His superiors indicated they wouldn’t “be held hostage” by Mr. Caldera’s EEO complaint, a different lieutenant testified.
Mr. Caldera ultimately met with the prison warden, who said he’d look into the matter. Yet only a few days later — shortly before becoming Mr. Caldera’s official boss — Mr. Grove was at it again, according to testimony.
The sergeant, a big man known as Rhino, attended a training session about the prison’s electric fences. When another sergeant asked Mr. Grove how he was doing, she testified, he responded with a fake stammer:
“Everything is fine except for Ca- Ca- Ca- Caldera.”
Mr. Grove went on to mimic his future employee “throughout the whole conversation,” she testified.
“It seems striking to us,” said the appellate court in affirming the jury’s verdict, “that the harassment was so pervasive within the institution that Grove apparently felt he could openly mimic Caldera’s stutter in front of his peers … without any sense of shame or fear of reprisal.”
The EEO complaint ended up sidetracked at the prison: About a week after Mr. Grove became his direct supervisor, Mr. Caldera got a letter saying that stuttering isn’t an EEO matter — and that his problems therefore were being bounced back as a “supervisory issue.”
About a month later, without further action, the prison’s associate warden wrote to the EEO officer that the matter was “resolved,” according to court records.
Mr. Caldera predictably did not enjoy working for Mr. Grove, although he wasn’t mocked to his face anymore. He filed a different discrimination charge and requested a transfer as an accommodation of his disability, which wasn’t acted upon, according to court documents. He testified that the sergeant was “consistently critical” of his work and treated Mr. Caldera differently than his fellow officers.
Mr. Caldera began taking anti-anxiety medication, he said in a deposition, and suffered from feelings of paranoia and claustrophobia that he never had experienced at work before.
After about nine months, Mr. Grove moved to become supervisor at the prison’s weapons range, where Mr. Caldera often had worked as an instructor. Unlike previous supervisors, the sergeant called Mr. Caldera to instruct at the range only once or twice, according to testimony.
Mr. Caldera filed his lawsuit a few months after Mr. Grove’s reassignment. Since the resulting trial he has taken an early retirement, and no longer works as a corrections officer.
“It was just too stressful an environment for him to continue in,” said his lawyer, Todd F. Nevell.
» Read Mr. Caldera’s first amended complaint
» Read the California appellate opinion that affirmed the jury’s verdict
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Caldera v. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. 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.
During this case, Mr. Caldera was represented by Scolinos, Sheldon & Nevell.
To Justify Firing African Employees, This Bad Boss Made Them Take a Biased Test
Not long after she became administrator of the New Mercer Commons assisted living facility in Fort Collins, Colo., Pamela Lewis began pushing for change.
In particular, according to court filings, she aimed to get rid of several African patient care providers (PCPs). “They just can’t speak English,” she complained to Marlene Hoem, her staff development coordinator, Ms. Hoem said in testimony.
Ms. Hoem, who had worked at New Mercer Commons for more than 14 years and knew the staffers well, disagreed with her new boss: She replied that the PCPs in question were well-liked and well-understood by patients, according to a complaint filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Nonetheless, Ms. Lewis soon asked Ms. Hoem about shifting one of the PCPs she had criticized — Sawson Ibrahim, an immigrant from Sudan — to the facility’s housekeeping crew. When Ms. Ibrahim began crying and begged to continue helping patients, Ms. Hoem backed off and informed Ms. Lewis.
About a week later, Ms. Lewis summarily fired Ms. Hoem — and then launched new policies that would result in the dismissal of four African caregivers, including Ms. Ibrahim and her husband, purportedly for failing a written test that the EEOC said was biased against them.
Pamela Lewis is our new Bad Boss of the Month.
After investigating the situation at New Mercer Commons and failing to reach an agreement with its operator, Columbine Management Services, Inc., the EEOC filed a complaint in federal court alleging discrimination against the four African PCPs — and illegal retaliation against Ms. Hoem for refusing to go along. Under a consent decree entered in July 2018, Columbine agreed to settle the case by paying $335,000 to be divided among the five victims, and by submitting to continuing oversight from the EEOC.
Ms. Hoem had gotten her start at New Mercer as a caregiver herself, but quickly was promoted to staff development coordinator. For more than a decade she hired, evaluated, and scheduled the facility’s employees, often volunteering for holiday shifts herself so that staffers could be with their families.
With a caregiving staff that had always included PCPs from many countries — from Spain to Iraq to Nepal to the Philippines — Ms. Hoem testified that she was puzzled by Ms. Lewis’ particular focus on Africans. The new boss “said ‘they’ a lot,” Ms. Hoem recalled in a deposition. “I told her that [the African PCPs] were good employees, they were dependable, reliable, respectful to their coworkers and supervisors, kind to the residents.”
In her deposition, Ms. Hoem said she urged Ms. Lewis to get to know all of the caregivers, to no avail. Instead, Ms. Lewis jumped on Ms. Hoem’s failure to transfer Ms. Ibrahim to the laundry room as a reason for firing her.
In a memo written at the time and filed in connection with the EEOC lawsuit, Ms. Lewis justified the termination, in part, by saying she had received “numerous family complaints about [Ms. Ibrahim’s] ability to care for their loved ones due to her language barrier.” In testimony, Ms. Hoem said she never heard such complaints; Columbine Management offered no further documentation.
In a court filing, meanwhile, the EEOC portrayed Ms. Hoem’s firing not just as retaliatory but also as a possible preemptive strike because Columbine “anticipated she would oppose” a broader plan, fueled by Ms. Lewis’ anti-African views, “to be rid of the African employees.”
In the event, Ms. Lewis soon had five of her facility’s six African caregivers on performance improvement plans (PIPs) — a disciplinary step that’s often a prelude to firing. According to a brief by the EEOC, only one other employee was ever put on a PIP during Ms. Lewis’ tenure, even though many caregivers had comparable English proficiency.
Among the PCPs targeted for “improvement” was Kiros Aregahgn, an Ethiopian immigrant who at the time had worked at New Mercer for eight years, consistently receiving above-average assessments. Under her PIP, Ms. Aregahgn was instructed to speak English at all times and to upgrade her patient paperwork within three weeks — although no specific deficiencies in her documents were noted, according to the EEOC’s filing.
Ms. Aregahgn also was instructed to take a new “PCP Training Course,” which consisted of three days of instruction with a written test covering each day’s content. The tests were created by Penny Rubala, a director of clinical education for Columbine, and featured “linguistic and structural characteristics known to confuse” non-native English speakers, as well as “extraneous variables unrelated to the skills the exam was intended to measure,” according to the EEOC’s complaint. The course would later be rolled out for all PCPs — although not as a hiring criterion.
Ms. Ibrahim and her husband also were put on PIPs and sent to take the first-ever session of the new course along with fellow Sudanese immigrant Hanaa Gual, also on a PIP; two more African PCPs; and nine other caregivers. An e-mail from Ms. Rubala, who administered the course, incorrectly identified all six African employees as being “from Ethiopia” and mentioned “very strong body odor.”
“I don’t envy Pam [Lewis] with her PIPs,” Ms. Rubala wrote in the document, later filed in court.
Ms. Rubala gave the session’s only failing grades to Ms. Aregahgn, Ms. Ibrahim and her husband — both of whom she accused of cheating — and Ms. Gual. According to the EEOC’s complaint, the African PCPs weren’t given the same partial credit that their non-African peers received for partially correct answers. Based on information supplied by Columbine for the lawsuit, only two out of almost 170 PCPs failed the course in the six years that followed its initial administration. An expert witness for the EEOC said the aggregated results showed an adverse impact on African employees — and that, independent of this impact, the test was an invalid tool anyhow and “should not have been used for employment decisions.”
After seeing the results of the initial session, however, Ms. Lewis and her team decided that failure should result in dismissal, according to EEOC filings. On a single day, Ms. Lewis terminated Ms. Ibrahim and her husband, Ms. Aregahgn, and Ms. Gual.
In a deposition, the director of the EEOC’s Denver field office equivocated about whether Ms. Lewis had an “evil intent” from the get-go to use test results in “a plot … to potentially run these individuals out,” something Ms. Lewis had denied in testimony.
“[I]t could be that … as time progressed … [the tests] became a vehicle,” the EEOC’s John Lowrie testified. In the end, however, Mr. Lowrie said the agency concluded that Ms. Lewis had requested the testing specifically to push out African PCPs.
Of the two people who failed the course in subsequent sessions, only one was fired as a PCP — and he, a white man, was given a housekeeping position at equivalent pay, according to court documents. An official at Columbine even discussed allowing the man to retake the test, despite his flubbing “basic questions such as infection control,” but rejected the idea because it might look bad: “We are concerned … it would place the program in jeopardy based on previous terminations,” the official wrote in an e-mail that was later filed in court. “I don’t want to have this issue to backfire and cause additional EEOC charges.”
By this time, Ms. Lewis had moved on: She left New Mercer for health reasons a few months after firing Ms. Ibrahim and the other African PCPs. Saying she no longer wanted to work as an administrator, she took a job as a care provider and later started studying for a Ph.D. in clinical psychology that covered, in part, “the importance of understanding different cultures,” she said in a deposition.
She didn’t complete the work, she testified.
» Read the EEOC’s amended complaint
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in EEOC v. Columbine Management 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.
This case was filed on behalf of the fired New Mercer employees by the EEOC’s Denver field office.