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.
This Bad Boss Punished a Career Prosecutor for Following Her Principles
Public prosecutors are hired to exercise unclouded legal judgment about whom to charge with a crime.
But Marlea Dell’Anno was fired for exercising such judgment, a jury found.
As a top prosecutor for the city of San Diego, Ms. Dell’Anno had enjoyed a large corner office, oversaw about 160 attorneys and staff, and reported directly to City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, a combative local politician who used his elected post to draw media attention and settle scores, according to a lawsuit.
In court filings, Ms. Dell’Anno said she ran afoul of Mr. Goldsmith by declining to prosecute flimsy cases that her boss was pushing for mostly political reasons — a battery charge against a troubled homeless man who spat at a cop, for instance.
An adviser to Mr. Goldsmith told Ms. Dell’Anno that she’d find more favor if she agreed to “get [her] hands dirty,” according to testimony. Instead, she refused more dubious requests from her boss. In response, Mr. Goldsmith stripped Ms. Dell’Anno of her staff and responsibilities and assigned her to a newly created position for “homeless related issues,” moving her office to a “filthy” room that had previously been used for storage, according to court filings.
Then, after Ms. Dell’Anno filed a complaint, Mr. Goldsmith quickly fired her — accusing her of dropping the ball on domestic violence reports. “There is absolutely no excuse” for such legal failures, Mr. Goldsmith declared to the media, which portrayed the firing as a valid punishment for Ms. Dell’Anno having “bungled” sensitive cases.
A jury ultimately found the firing to be illegal. In the meantime, however, a formerly rising star’s career lay in tatters.
Jan Goldsmith is our latest Bad Boss of the Month.
Ms. Dell’Anno sued the City of San Diego for retaliation, and earlier this year a California jury awarded her $3.9 million in damages. The judge later tacked on $1.7 million in attorney fees and costs. The city is appealing the verdict .
Being a prosecutor was Ms. Dell’Anno’s “lifelong dream,” according to court filings. After starting out as a public defender in Tulare County, in California’s Central Valley, she became a deputy district attorney for neighboring Fresno County, where she coordinated a program to manage sex offenders .
In 2009, Ms. Dell’Anno moved south to San Diego to become a deputy city attorney under Mr. Goldsmith. She was tapped to run the domestic violence unit, where she notched a 95% conviction rate. By mid-2012, she was heading the entire criminal division , according to court documents.
“My whole identity was being a prosecutor,” Ms. Dell’Anno testified. “I loved everything about being a prosecutor, and I loved my division.”
As the elected city attorney, meanwhile, Mr. Goldsmith was a veteran politician. A Republican, he had served as mayor of Poway, a small city north of San Diego, and then for three terms in the California state assembly. After an unsuccessful run for state treasurer, he served as a judge for almost a decade before being elected as San Diego’s top prosecutor of misdemeanors. (The San Diego County district attorney handles felonies, which are graver crimes.)
Court documents depict Ms. Dell’Anno’s early relationship with Mr. Goldsmith as respectful. In 2013, however, Ms. Dell’Anno attended a city council meeting and publicly answered questions about her division’s budget — too honestly for Mr. Goldsmith’s taste, according to her testimony.
In her complaint, Ms. Dell’Anno described the city attorney chewing her out in front of his entire management team and forbidding her from speaking with council members. The relationship never recovered.
The following year, an elderly homeless man was arrested while he was having a mental crisis. According to court documents, he spat on a police officer. One of Ms. Dell’Anno’s attorneys decided not to file battery charges, but the spat-upon officer appealed to Mr. Goldsmith, who was known as a vocal supporter of the police. Mr. Goldsmith, in turn, asked Ms. Dell’Anno to take a closer look .
Ms. Dell’Anno concluded that the incident — which became known as the “spit battery case” — couldn’t ethically be prosecuted. She wrote a memo to her boss explaining why, but Mr. Goldsmith disagreed and declared that he’d try the case himself, according to court documents, despite never having played such a role before.
Ms. Dell’Anno ended up winning the dispute when San Diego’s police chief told Mr. Goldsmith that her department had no intention of arresting the elderly man.
Hoping to mend fences, Ms. Dell’Anno sought advice around this time from Gerry Braun, a former journalist who was hired by Mr. Goldsmith to manage public relations — and who was known around the office as the “Jan whisperer,” according to filings.
Mr. Braun’s advice cut straight to the point: Mr. Goldsmith “wants you to get your hands dirty,” he advised, according to Ms. Dell’Anno’s complaint. “If you would just get your hands dirty, they would let you in the room.”
A litmus test came quickly. In court documents, Ms. Dell’Anno described a gleeful Mr. Goldsmith calling her into his office with a plan to “get” one of his political enemies — Cory Briggs, a local attorney who ran for the city attorney position.
Mr. Briggs’ supposed criminal offense: Authorizing other people to sign legal pleadings with his electronic signature. When Ms. Dell’Anno told Mr. Goldsmith that she didn’t see it as a prosecutable matter, “she could see the happiness draining from his face, replaced by anger,” according to filings.
In another showdown, Ms. Dell’Anno said in her complaint, Mr. Goldsmith asked her to use a civil subpoena to fish for evidence against a newspaper he wanted to charge criminally; again, she refused. (In filings, Mr. Goldsmith said he had no memory of this.)
Perhaps the last straw was a pair of performance evaluations. Two attorneys got bad ratings from their managers, who worked in turn for Ms. Dell’Anno. The employees sought help directly from Mr. Goldsmith, who asked Ms. Dell’Anno to yank the evaluations from their personnel files, according to testimony — a request she refused, citing state law and the fact that one of the attorneys was the subject of an ongoing internal investigation.
Shortly after, Mr. Goldsmith took action: He shifted Ms. Dell’Anno out of her plum job and into what she described in court documents as a “fict[it]ious position” that included the creation of what Mr. Goldsmith called a “Homeless Court.” She went from supervising 160 people to supervising no one, according to filings, and was assigned a small, dirty office that used to be a storage room .
Ms. Dell’Anno immediately blasted the move as retaliation, calling it “the most professionally and personally devasting event of my twenty-year career” in an email that also informed Mr. Goldsmith that she had hired counsel and filed an employment complaint.
Plus, she noted: “Your actions have had a direct and profound impact on my health and as a result, I have been placed on leave by my doctor.”
The following morning, according to documents filed in the case, Mr. Goldsmith emailed his head of human resources: “My intent is to fire her today.” Told that this would be seen as illegal retaliation, he instead said Ms. Dell’Anno should be fired after she returned from medical leave, according to filings.
And she was, about three weeks later, by which time Mr. Goldsmith had found a reason: Mishandling her portfolio of misdemeanor domestic violence complaints, a matter that hadn’t been raised before her leave.
In court documents, each side tells a different story about these cases. An attorney in Ms. Dell’Anno’s division evidently had allowed the statute of limitations to lapse on some misdemeanor complaints without action, and without informing the alleged victims.
According to Ms. Dell’Anno, she followed protocol, investigated the problem, and properly informed Mr. Goldsmith’s management team. But Mr. Goldsmith testified that the matter never reached his level — even though evidence showed that, during the investigation he convened during Ms. Dell’Anno’s absence, he had found two old memos that “apparently not much was done about.”
The reason for this communication failing is unknown, but in any case, court documents and news articles show that Mr. Goldsmith fired only two people: Ms. Dell’Anno and the lower-level attorney responsible for the cases. The junior attorney quickly found another prosecutor job — pursuing felony crimes, in fact — but Ms. Dell’Anno was shut out based on what she claimed in court documents was a smear campaign by “one or more high ranking officials and/or employees at the City Attorney’s office.”
She also was damaged by Mr. Goldsmith’s savvy media spin, including a story in the prominent San Diego Union-Tribune , according to testimony. While the newspaper quoted Mr. Goldsmith as “declin[ing] to identify the lawyers involved [in] a confidential personnel matter,” it also said four unnamed sources confirmed that Ms. Dell’Anno had been held responsible for “98 bungled cases .”
By her own account, Ms. Dell’Anno became unemployable as a prosecutor, and at one point considered turning to teaching to support her three children as a single mother. “It became pretty clear that I was being blackballed in the legal community,” she said in a deposition.
Ultimately, she opened her own law practice instead. In the interim she survived on loans and savings; her income for 2016, the year after her termination, was just $7,500, she testified. In 2021, an expert found that Ms. Dell’Anno still hadn’t “reached parity with her pre-termination earning capacity.”
In total, the jury in the case said, the former prosecutor’s economic loss due to Mr. Goldsmith’s actions had reached about $734,000 by the time of the trial — and would amount to a further $2.66 million in the future.
It awarded her a further $500,000 for physical and emotional damage.
In their verdict, the jurors confirmed that Ms. Dell’Anno wouldn’t have been fired if she hadn’t raised concerns about the spit battery case, the attempt to charge Mr. Briggs, and the request to remove the evaluation of an attorney under investigation — and that in each case Ms. Dell’Anno had “reasonable cause to believe that [Mr. Goldsmith’s requested actions] would result in … a violation of or noncompliance with” laws or rules.
Mr. Goldsmith didn’t run for reelection in 2016 due to term limits.
» Read Ms. Dell’Anno’s complaint
» Watch a news segment of Ms. Dell’Anno speaking with ABC 10 News
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Marlea Dell’Anno v. City of San Diego. We select “Bad Boss” cases to illustrate the continuing relevance of employee protection laws for our newsletter’s audience, which includes attorneys and former TELG clients.
Ms. Dell’Anno was represented by Denning Moores APC.
This Bad Boss Asked an Employee to Lie Under Oath — and Fired Him After He Refused
When Matthew Flanigan saw evidence that a senior executive at his company might be violating security protocols, he alerted a group that included Allan Metzger, the cofounder and then-CEO of Rheumatology Diagnostics Laboratory (RDL), a Los Angeles-based medical testing facility.
At first, Mr. Metzger agreed to restrict the executive’s access to RDL’s computer network, according to a lawsuit filed later by Mr. Flanigan, who was the lab’s IT director.
But after the alleged culprit made a fuss, Mr. Metzger instead reversed course and dragged Mr. Flanigan into a high-stakes corporate battle by asking him to declare under oath that he’d never seen any sign of a security breach, according to testimony.
Mr. Flanigan refused to lie for the CEO, a former doctor who had previously made headlines for his care of pop stars Janet and Michael Jackson — and who had surrendered his medical license in 2014 after being convicted of sexually exploiting a patient during an examination, according to court records.
Instead, the IT director signed a declaration for the other side in the fight — and quickly faced retaliation.
According to court documents, Mr. Metzger suspended Mr. Flanigan and started a probe of his behavior. Among the investigators: The husband of the executive who had earlier been flagged for security violations.
Just two weeks later Mr. Flanigan was fired, supposedly for deleting company files during his suspension, an action he believes was concocted to frame him, according to court documents.
Allan Metzger is our latest Bad Boss of the Month.
Mr. Flanigan sued RDL in California state court, claiming he’d actually been fired for, among other things, refusing to perjure himself. In late 2021, a Los Angeles jury found RDL liable and awarded him $1.68 million in damages. This May a judge awarded Mr. Flanigan nearly $900,000 more in interest, costs, and attorney fees.
RDL, the main assets of which were acquired by testing giant LabCorp in 2020, is appealing the verdict.
Mr. Flanigan had been at RDL for just over a year when the trouble started — but he already was thriving at the lab, having earned a promotion, a company car, and $40,000 in raises during his short tenure.
As IT director his job included overseeing computer security, so he was alarmed in early 2017 when software showed that RDL’s new compliance chief, Kristine Azarraga, had plugged in an unauthorized thumb drive and introduced foreign files into the lab’s network.
The files, Mr. Flanigan said in court documents, came from Ms. Azarraga’s previous employer, also a healthcare company, and included personal data from thousands of patients in apparent violation of HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, a law that protects the privacy of such information.
The IT director went to the top with his concerns, calling a meeting with Mr. Metzger and two other top executives, Samuel Morris and Richard Kazdan. Faced with Ms. Azarraga’s apparent misuse of a former employer’s data, the men initially agreed to limit her access to RDL’s data, Mr. Flanigan testified.
But then things went sideways.
First, Mr. Metzger reversed the decision about Ms. Azarraga after the compliance chief complained: “I’m the CEO and you’ll … do what I tell you to do,” Mr. Flanigan said Mr. Metzger yelled at him.
And second, the incident pulled the IT director into a fight that was stewing between the CEO and the other two executives to whom Mr. Flanigan had reported Ms. Azarraga’s breach, Mr. Morris and Mr. Kazdan.
Some background: RDL had been founded in 1976 by Mr. Metzger and the late Robert Morris, a noted rheumatologist and the father of Samuel Morris. For decades, the lab was run by the elder Morris, who acted as president, and his wife Barbara, who acted as CEO. Son Samuel later joined as a top manager.
Although Mr. Metzger was a co-owner, he mostly pursued flashier interests, according to court filings — including prescribing medication to stars such as Janet Jackson, for which he was censured in 2000, and accompanying Michael Jackson on tour as a physician.
(Mr. Metzger didn’t prescribe or administer the drugs that caused Mr. Jackson’s death in 2009; indeed, he testified against Conrad Murray, the physician who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the case.)
Mr. Kazdan was the lab’s longtime CFO.
By 2016 Robert and Barbara Morris were ailing; both would die before long. Having lost his California medical license in 2014, Mr. Metzger turned his focus to RDL — and, with the help of a minority shareholder, voted for himself as CEO to wrest control of the lab away from the Morrises, according to court filings.
Mr. Metzger treated RDL as a “personal piggy bank,” according to a declaration filed in court by the younger Mr. Morris: The new CEO paid himself an $800,000 salary; leased a Maserati as a company car; flew first-class and stayed in posh hotels with a girlfriend on “alleged … business outings”; and engaged in “sexual harassment” of RDL employees. The lab began to struggle financially, according to Mr. Morris, who testified that he had to lend RDL money just to make payroll.
Against this backdrop, Ms. Azarraga’s network access wasn’t just a security matter: It was fodder for a claim of mismanagement against Mr. Metzger.
Following the Azarraga incident, both Mr. Morris and Mr. Kazdan left RDL; Mr. Morris resigned and Mr. Kazdan was fired after warning the CEO about improper lab practices, according to court documents. In August, the duo filed a derivative action against Mr. Metzger and others, including Ms. Azarraga, claiming a breach of fiduciary duty and seeking at least $20 million for shareholders, along with changes to RDL’s “governance, policies and culture.”
Among the facts they cited: Mr. Flanigan’s warning about Ms. Azarraga — and Mr. Metzger’s subsequent restoration of her network privileges.
After being served with the lawsuit, the CEO summoned Mr. Flanigan into his office, according to testimony. A lawyer for RDL attended via phone and quizzed the IT director about the Azarraga incident; a few days later, Mr. Flanigan received a document in which he was asked to swear that he was unaware of any evidence that Ms. Azarraga had violated security protocols.
“Having reported Ms. Azarraga for doing precisely that only four months earlier,” Judge Terry Green noted in a later order, Mr. Flanigan “could not very well sign the declaration.”
Meanwhile, attorneys for Mr. Morris and Mr. Kazdan had also been in touch with the IT director. They too had drafted a declaration — and on the same day he refused to endorse Mr. Metzger’s document, Mr. Flanigan signed the competing version, which he found to be truthful.
The next day, after his declaration was filed in court, the IT director was put on investigative leave. The issue, according to court documents: In his declaration, Mr. Flanigan might have disclosed privileged information — and Mr. Metzger wanted to see whether he was leaking dirt to the other side. The IT director was forbidden to access RDL’s computer system.
Mr. Flanigan wasn’t at work when he got news of the suspension; the morning after siding against Mr. Metzger, he had called in sick with chest pains. His RDL office was quickly stripped of his personal effects.
“It was pretty obvious that they intended to fire me,” he testified.
Ironically, just weeks earlier Mr. Flanigan had been cleared of any collaboration with the recently departed Mr. Morris and Mr. Kazdan — via a secret investigation launched by Mr. Metzger himself. Concerned that his email had been compromised, the CEO had asked an outside security consultant to assess whether his IT director was “spying,” according to a copy of the report filed in the case.
The resulting exoneration was definitive: “I … would go so far as to stake my professional reputation … that the likelihood of Matt Flanigan committing any wrongdoing or unethical activity [is remote],” the investigator wrote in a report that didn’t surface until years into the lawsuit.
Nonetheless, RDL pressed ahead with another investigation. This time evidence showed that “the conclusion was foregone,” according to Judge Green.
First, according to court documents, came an informal probe by — of all people — Ms. Azarraga’s husband, Garabed Yegavian, himself an IT professional. Mr. Yegavian “might well” have been biased against Mr. Flanigan, according to Judge Green.
Either way, Mr. Yegavian promptly delivered logs that purported to show that Mr. Flanigan had deleted a bunch of files after being banned from the network. Then RDL provided the same logs to an outside investigator, who agreed with Mr. Yegavian’s conclusion — but didn’t address what Judge Green called “the very real possibility” that someone else had used Mr. Flanigan’s passwords, which he had provided to RDL, to create the firing offense. In fact, records showed that the IT director wasn’t at the RDL office when Mr. Yegavian’s logs supposedly showed him logging in from there.
Based on these investigations, which Judge Green wrote “can hardly be called rigorous,” Mr. Metzger fired Mr. Flanigan in September 2017. About a month later, RDL began paying Mr. Yegavian as a consultant, according to court documents.
The matter finally reached trial in state court in September 2021. After three weeks of proceedings, a Los Angeles jury found Mr. Metzger’s firing of the IT director to be both unlawful and “malicious, oppressive, and/or fraudulent,” awarding Mr. Flanigan $1.08 million in direct damages and a further $600,000 in punitive damages — to which Judge Green later added almost $900,000 in interest, fees, and costs, for a total of more than $2.5 million.
The dispute over RDL’s governance, meanwhile, settled in 2019. After selling most of the business to LabCorp, Mr. Metzger wound up the corporation in 2020, according to state filings. His medical license had been reinstated earlier that year, with a host of probationary conditions that included the use of a chaperone when treating female patients and successful completion of a program on “professional boundaries,” but the now-former CEO agreed to surrender his license again in 2021.
The most recent order by the Medical Board of California doesn’t state a reason, but cites a provision that covers either Mr. Metzger’s decision to stop practicing medicine or his inability “to satisfy the terms and conditions of probation.”
» Read Mr. Flanigan’s complaint
» Watch Mr. Metzger’s testimony in the trial of Conrad Murray, a physician convicted of the involuntary manslaughter of Michael Jackson
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Flanigan v. Rheumatology Diagnostics Laboratory, 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. Flanigan was represented by the Law Offices of Edward Y. Lee.
This Bad Boss Triggered an Injured Employee’s PTSD — Then Took Him to Court.
Getting badly hurt by an inmate should have been the low point of Darrin Rushing’s career as a corrections officer.
But according to a lawsuit, it was just the start of his troubles.
Mr. Rushing’s leg had been shattered as he tried to break up a scuffle between prisoners at the Macomb Correctional Facility, a state prison outside Detroit. He was confined to a wheelchair for months.
When Mr. Rushing finally returned to full duty, he asked to have no further contact with Lester Gunn, the prisoner who broke his leg, but his request was denied. Before long he had an encounter with Mr. Gunn that awakened his post-traumatic stress disorder, according to testimony in the case.
Even so, Mr. Rushing’s boss, James Webster, kept assigning him to the same duty, jurors heard at trial — and when Mr. Rushing left work to avoid another bout of PTSD, Mr. Webster reported him for insubordination.
Tensions escalated between the men, according to testimony, as Mr. Webster harmed Mr. Rushing’s efforts to get a different job and gave him triggering tasks such as cleaning up blood after an assault.
Mr. Webster, a lieutenant, even dragged his subordinate into court, claiming that he feared Mr. Rushing would get physical. The supervisor sought a protective order that could have cost Mr. Rushing his job; a judge denied the request as improper.
James Webster is our latest Bad Boss of the Month.
Ultimately, Mr. Rushing filed a complaint against the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC), alleging several violations of Michigan’s Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act. This April, a state jury awarded Mr. Rushing more than $1.2 million in damages.
Mr. Rushing had grown up with a strong sense of duty: The youngest of six brothers, he began taking on extra tasks at age seven, including the collection of donated food, when his abusive, alcoholic father left the family, according to court documents.
After high school, Mr. Rushing served for six years in the Marines and held a number of service-oriented jobs. In 1999, he began working for the MDOC, earning a top honor at the training academy, he testified. He had a trouble-free corrections career until 2011, when he received his life-altering injury at Macomb.
According to the incident report, two inmates got into a fight. One prisoner was quickly restrained; Mr. Rushing was among the responders who tried to control the other, Lester Gunn, a large, heavy man who resisted violently.
“He fought, kicked, he dislocated my ankle, we fell to the floor-and when he fell on me, he bent my leg backward and I sustained a grade four spiral fracture” of the calf bone, Mr. Rushing testified. “[His] 230-pound body landed on me. He heard my leg snap in half. Everybody heard it.”
Mr. Rushing had to undergo surgery twice; a doctor advised him that any further injury could disable him permanently, he told jurors.
After the incident, Mr. Rushing took medical leave and, in 2012, swapped his wheelchair for a cane and returned to MDOC for a long transition period with lighter duties. Along the way, he finished up a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, being cleared by doctors to bear weight on his leg just six days before his graduation.
For several years, Mr. Rushing thrived doing administrative and counseling work. Then in 2015, while he was still limping, he was pushed back into full duty as a corrections officer at Macomb — and quickly learned that Mr. Gunn, the inmate who had broken his leg, was returning to the prison after a move elsewhere.
Mr. Rushing had first requested a no-contact order against Mr. Gunn from his hospital bed immediately after the incident, he testified, but the matter was moot back then. Now, it was more urgent.
Mr. Gunn had a violent history, according to court records. Multiple MDOC officers had no-contact orders against him for injuries that included bites, head-punching, and lacerations, with several requiring stitches and leading to prosecution, according to a “Special Problem Offender Notice” filed in the case.
Mr. Rushing’s concerns, however, were rebuffed .
Within the space of a month, Mr. Rushing faced Mr. Gunn three times in the chow hall at Macomb, triggering symptoms such as anxiety and an uncontrollably jittering foot. On the third occasion, he testified, the hulking inmate addressed him by name, shot a glance at the injured leg, and ominously asked how he was feeling.
This was enough to spark what Mr. Rushing’s doctor diagnosed as a PTSD episode, leading to several weeks of medical leave, another request for a no-contact order, and yet another denial — the fifth, according to Mr. Rushing’s complaint in the case .
When Mr. Rushing returned to Macomb, he was again assigned to the chow hall at the insistence of Mr. Webster, the lieutenant, according to testimony . On the first day, he quietly swapped duties with a colleague, but on the second day, he was ordered to comply. He pleaded with a sergeant for different duty, to no avail.
“I’ll do anything you want … even go dig through a prisoner’s poop,” he testified he said, before escalating the matter to the prison’s control center, where Mr. Webster was.
“I explained everything briefly … how I could not come face-to-face with Prisoner Gunn,” he said in a deposition. “I was not ready. And [Mr. Webster] said, You’re going to the chow hall.”
Feeling the onset of a panic attack, Mr. Rushing instead decided to go home sick. He was trembling as he removed his equipment, he testified, and kept dropping things. Under medical care for his PTSD, he wouldn’t return to the prison for several months.
The day he left, according to testimony, Mr. Webster requested that Mr. Rushing be investigated for insubordination.
Ironically, Mr. Gunn wasn’t even in the chow hall that day. No one told Mr. Rushing at the time, but the inmate he feared had been transferred to another facility for unrelated reasons .
After Mr. Rushing was cleared by his doctor, he returned to Macomb and faced the result of the insubordination probe that had been requested by Mr. Webster: A five-day unpaid suspension. The lieutenant was waiting outside the prison’s HR office after Mr. Rushing was informed and promptly requested another investigation based on his subordinate’s reaction.
In testimony, both men agreed that Mr. Rushing was angry and snapped at Mr. Webster outside the HR office. But Mr. Webster also claimed that Mr. Rushing spoke to another person and hinted at violence against the lieutenant — something Mr. Rushing denied.
Mr. Webster took the extraordinary step of asking a Michigan state judge for a protective order that would bar his subordinate from the workplace. Mr. Rushing was humiliated by being served with the papers in the prison lobby, in front of coworkers, he testified.
The judge quickly denied Mr. Webster’s request, saying at a hearing that the alleged threat, even if it had happened, was “vague” and “heat of the moment.” With no claim of further threats, MDOC’s internal process should be allowed to play out, she said; the lieutenant’s pleading “doesn’t fly.”
“Basically, you’re coming to this court for [Mr. Rushing] to lose his job,” the judge said. “I really don’t think that is the proper place.”
MDOC’s internal investigation led to a second suspension for Mr. Rushing. In an affidavit, a former deputy warden called both suspensions “inappropriate and excessive.”
“Officer Rushing should have been shown some compassion considering he was assaulted by a prisoner he would encounter,” he wrote.
Via a grievance process, Mr. Rushing ultimately retrieved some of the lost pay — but he continued to be harmed by the discipline process and by Mr. Webster’s failed request for a protective order.
In 2016, for instance, Mr. Rushing applied for a position with the Saint Clair County Sheriff’s Department. He reached the final round of interviews — but then, during a reference check, his prospective employer reached Mr. Webster.
“I’m probably not the person you want to talk to,” said Mr. Webster, according to an MDOC email filed in court. “I recently put a [personal protective order] out on Officer Rushing.”
Mr. Rushing didn’t get the job.
His disciplinary record stopped him from being promoted internally, according to testimony, despite Mr. Rushing’s long experience and strong education, plus military service that was considered as a positive factor by MDOC.
In 2017, for example, an assistant deputy warden told him he was the most qualified candidate to become a program coordinator, Mr. Rushing testified — but was “instantly deflated” to learn of the suspensions.
A candidate with less relevant experience was hired instead, according to court records.
Meanwhile, Mr. Webster continued to be his supervisor, assigning him tasks that Mr. Rushing viewed as punitive.
In one instance, a friend of Mr. Rushing was attacked by an inmate. According to Mr. Rushing’s deposition, blood was splattered as high as four feet on several walls; Mr. Webster ordered Mr. Rushing to clean it up, even though other officers were available.
According to a psychiatric evaluation in court records, the incident aggravated Mr. Rushing’s PTSD, increasing his nightmares, flashbacks, and panic attacks. At trial, both Mr. Rushing and his wife told jurors that his marriage suffered from the ongoing stress of working with Mr. Webster; he withdrew from his family and stopped having dinner with them.
Mr. Rushing filed an internal complaint against Mr. Webster but, according to court documents, it went nowhere. In 2018, he filed his lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections.
In April 2022, after a three-week trial, a jury found MDOC liable to Mr. Rushing for failing to accommodate his disability; for discriminating against him; and for retaliation. Jury members awarded the officer, who remains employed by MDOC, more than $400,000 in past and future economic damages — and almost $868,000 for physical and emotional harm.
According to his attorney, Mr. Rushing was finally promoted shortly before the trial began.
» Read Mr. Rushing’s first amended complaint in the case
» Read the incident report of Mr. Rushing’s injury
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Rushing v. Michigan Department of Corrections. 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. Rushing was represented by Marko Law.
This Bad Boss Pushed His Tourette-Suffering Employee Toward a Health Crisis.
Working almost 100 hours in a week is a lot. For Brian Bell, it proved overwhelming.
Mr. Bell’s disabilities — from depression to Tourette Syndrome — hadn’t previously affected his strong performance as a store manager at O’Reilly Auto Parts in Belfast, Maine, according to a lawsuit he later filed. His Tourette’s tics, which manifested as a body jerk and a squeaking sound, were limited to just ten a day via medication.
But when an O’Reilly district manager, Chris Watters, denied his requests for extra help to cover a staff shortage, Mr. Bell was suddenly forced to double his own work hours, he testified. Even after adjusting his meds, his symptoms began to escalate under the stress and exhaustion.
Mr. Bell was near a breaking point, he told a jury, but Mr. Watters — who was partly responsible for the labor emergency, according to testimony — refused his pleas to offer overtime to other store workers or to borrow staff from nearby O’Reilly locations.
By the start of his seventh 15-hour day, Mr. Bell’s tics became almost constant. Other symptoms were cropping up, too, including severe headaches and pain in a previously injured knee. He ducked into the parking lot for a quick break, which didn’t violate any rules — only for Mr. Watters, who had been tipped off by a neighboring store manager, to call Mr. Bell’s cellphone and order him back to work immediately, according to testimony.
Ultimately, a medical provider stepped in and helped the beleaguered Mr. Bell to take some leave and request a disability accommodation that would shield him from excessive schedules in the future. Mr. Watters said he couldn’t make such a guarantee to an O’Reilly store manager, however, a jury heard at trial.
The district manager’s counteroffer: A demotion to a different location that would cut Mr. Bell’s pay in half while tripling his commute.
Chris Watters is our latest Bad Boss of the Month.
Mr. Bell filed a lawsuit against O’Reilly in 2016 under the Maine Human Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, resulting in two trials in federal court — the second a redo after the first was compromised by faulty jury instructions. In October 2021, the second jury awarded Mr. Bell more than $850,000 in damages, an amount that was affirmed last month by the trial judge.
O’Reilly will contest the outcome, according to court filings.
Mr. Bell was diagnosed with Tourette’s at 16. As with most sufferers, the disorder wasn’t very disruptive — nothing like some lurid media portrayals. His body would occasionally twitch and a squeal-like sound would escape, he told jurors, which might unnerve onlookers who didn’t expect it. With medication, he kept it under good control.
He had previously been diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety, which often accompany Tourette’s, and developed major depressive disorder a few years later. Nonetheless, jurors heard, he thrived. He was an honor student throughout college , even while enduring multiple surgeries for a lacrosse-injured knee. After graduating with a degree in business administration and marketing, he started working in the auto industry.
By 2014, Mr. Bell had earned several Automotive Service Excellence certifications and four years of managerial experience. He joined O’Reilly as its Belfast store manager, bringing the location into profitability for the first time in its history — and logging performance improvements every month, according to testimony. His disabilities were widely known at work, he said, including the Tourette’s, but didn’t require any accommodation.
Meanwhile, as district manager, Mr. Watters oversaw several stores in the area. He visited the Belfast store almost every week and spoke with Mr. Bell almost daily; at trial, he admitted having noticed Mr. Bell’s tics.
They clashed early on. Apparently due to a miscommunication, Mr. Watters wrote up Mr. Bell for failing to work full shifts. According to court documents, Mr. Watters called the behavior — which Mr. Bell denied — “a personal insult.”
Certainly the men had different management styles. According to documents, Mr. Bell wanted to go easy on several employees who faced personal challenges, while Mr. Watters pushed to fire them. In one instance, Mr. Bell said in a court document that wasn’t seen by jurors, Mr. Watters seemed to suggest framing an underperformer for theft.
“I do not care if you put a stereo in his personal vehicle and then find it while walking him out to his car,” Mr. Bell said he was told by Mr. Watters.
At trial, Mr. Bell skipped such details but painted Mr. Watters as a caustic authoritarian. “I think that he believed that the ends justified the means,” he testified. “[A]t the end of the day, you had two ways of doing things, and that was his way or out.”
In May 2015, one of Mr. Watters’ firings coincided with an unrelated resignation to create a sudden staff shortage in the Belfast store, according to testimony. Some of the remaining employees were able to work overtime, Mr. Bell told jurors, but Mr. Watters refused to authorize the expenditure — or to borrow workers from a nearby store.
While he scrambled to find new employees, Mr. Bell had to fill the gap himself. He began working 15 hours a day, from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., he testified, and his health took a downward turn.
Mr. Bell’s tics became more frequent and more painful, he told the jury. Standing in the store for long hours also worsened the lingering injury to his knee, he said, and he started to experience headaches and dizziness.
By June 4, he was struggling. He had told Mr. Watters he was burning out, he testified — and Mr. Watters had witnessed his troubles while on a store visit — but no help was forthcoming. Having worked about 90 hours in the past week, he was exhausted and trembling.
According to court documents, Mr. Bell opened the store that day, waited for his staff to arrive, and then went out to his truck to gather himself. His tics were coming with barely a pause. Like other O’Reilly employees, Mr. Bell was entitled to 90 minutes of break time each day; at trial, Mr. Watters agreed that store managers can take this time at their discretion.
Nonetheless, Mr. Watters called Mr. Bell’s cellphone after just 15 minutes.
According to court documents, the district manager had been tipped off by a non-O’Reilly person who worked nearby; Mr. Watters said it was “outrageous” for Mr. Bell to be taking a break and told him to “get [his] ass back in the store now.”
Mr. Bell felt “defeated,” he told jurors, and complied.
A little later, in desperation, he went over Mr. Watters’ head and got permission to leave the store and seek immediate medical help, according to court documents.
Mr. Bell’s healthcare provider, a psychiatric nurse practitioner named Judy Weitzel, insisted that he take a few days off: Coupled with the overwork, his higher medication doses had nearly sent him to the hospital, she said.
Ms. Weitzel also helped Mr. Bell to fill out an O’Reilly form that requested a new accommodation for his disabilities — specifically, that his scheduled hours be limited to 45 hours a week, roughly the average amount he had worked before the staffing emergency. She wrote a cover note offering to answer any questions.
At trial, Mr. Watters admitted initial doubts about Mr. Bell’s disability claims. Although he had noticed the tics, he testified, he didn’t know about any mental health issues. According to court documents, his first response was, “Who will be closing your store?”
Furthermore, O’Reilly lawyers told the court, Mr. Watters misinterpreted Mr. Bell’s accommodation request: He believed that 45 hours was a hard weekly maximum — when in fact, both Ms. Weitzel and Mr. Bell allowed some flexibility for unexpected events.
Mr. Watters never contacted Ms. Weitzel, according to court documents. Instead, according to court documents, he concluded that Mr. Bell couldn’t be accommodated while remaining as an O’Reilly store manager. He offered him a lower position as Shift Lead in a different town, which would increase Mr. Bell’s daily commute while slicing his yearly earnings of $42,000 by half.
Mr. Bell realized the misunderstanding and tried to explain it to Mr. Watters but got nowhere, he testified. He even contacted O’Reilly’s HR department and offered to be demoted to assistant manager in the Belfast store, if that would solve matters, but got no official reply.
Meanwhile, at Mr. Watters’ request, he was staying away from work while negotiations ground on.
In July, Mr. Watters offered him a position as Parts Specialist in Belfast at $10 per hour, according to court documents — again, roughly half Mr. Bell’s existing salary. Mr. Bell responded by email, once more clarifying his accommodation request to Mr. Watters and to O’Reilly HR — and asking why he hadn’t been contacted about an assistant manager job that he heard had recently opened up in Belfast.
On August 5, Mr. Watters made him a take-it-or-leave-it offer: The Belfast assistant manager position for $10 per hour. Mr. Bell was troubled: Comparable non-disabled assistant managers got between $11 and $13, he said in court filings. Indeed, he testified, Mr. Watters had recently approved an offer of $13.50 per hour to hire someone with less managerial experience and fewer industry certifications than Mr. Bell.
Mr. Watters had given Mr. Bell just two days to respond or face termination, according to court documents. Mr. Bell asked for a better pay rate but got no immediate reply. His mental health, already precarious, continued to plummet; at trial, an expert witness said he became suicidal and was often bedridden.
His wife Natalie described Mr. Bell to jurors as disconnected, confused, and hurt during this period. In the car together one day, she testified, Mr. Bell asked her if she’d ever thought about just driving into a ditch. At his request, she removed all firearms and ammunition from the house.
“I texted him every hour on the hour just checking in, making sure he was okay and still there,” she testified.
About two months after his request to be paid more than $10 an hour as an assistant manager, Mr. Bell came to realize that he’d been fired when he received a letter from O’Reilly explaining his right to pay for a continuation of health benefits.
Mr. Bell sued in 2016. His first trial ended in defeat, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit found errors and ordered a do-over. Late last year, the second trial ended in his favor: A federal jury awarded him $42,000 in back pay, $75,000 in compensatory damages, and $750,000 in punitive damages.
Mr. Watters stepped down as regional manager in 2016 and ultimately left O’Reilly in June 2018, shortly before the first trial, according to his LinkedIn profile.
» Read Mr. Bell’s first amended complaint in the case
» Read the email complaint Mr. Bell sent to O’Reilly’s HR department
» Read the order from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Bell v. O’Reilly Auto Enterprises, LLC, d/b/a O’Reilly Auto Parts. We select “Bad Boss” cases to illustrate the continuing relevance of employee protection laws for our newsletter’s audience, which includes attorneys and former TELG clients.
Mr. Bell was represented by Maine Employment Rights Group.
On Paper, This Pastor Was an Anti-Harassment Coordinator. The Reality Was a Bit Different.
Titles meant a lot to Anita Bralock: She had worked hard for hers.
After serving as a registered nurse since 1982, she earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in nursing so she could teach other medical professionals, eventually rising to department chair at a university just outside Los Angeles. When she was recruited by the Christian-oriented American University of Health Sciences in nearby Signal Hill, Calif., Ms. Bralock believed it was another step upward in her educational career.
Then she got to know Gregory Johnson, the founder of AUHS — a person for whom, according to testimony in a lawsuit filed by Ms. Bralock, titles were less … rigorous.
Mr. Johnson and his wife Kim Dang, a co-founder of AUHS, both went by “doctor,” for example, yet each holds only an honorary degree, the jury heard. Ms. Dang’s degree came from a shadowy school in Liberia; his from an institution that wasn’t stated in court. Neither had any medical training, Mr. Johnson testified.
As AUHS founder, the volatile Mr. Johnson frequently waved aside the school’s titles and hierarchy, Ms. Bralock testified, inserting himself into decisions he was unqualified to make, including student admissions and faculty selection. An independent accreditation group found his operating role at AUHS to be inappropriate, the jury heard.
A pastor whose “Church of Love” focuses on homeless people, Mr. Johnson also served as the federal Title IX coordinator for AUHS — making him responsible for ensuring a non-discriminatory educational environment. But Mr. Johnson himself handed out suggestive materials, inappropriately touched faculty members, exploded in anger, and was the subject of multiple sexual harassment complaints from students, according to court documents.
“I don’t even know what Title IX means,” Mr. Johnson acknowledged in a deposition video that was replayed in court.
Gregory Johnson is our new Bad Boss of the Month.
Ms. Bralock and another administrator began looking into some of the harassment allegations, only to be fired for purportedly unrelated reasons. They filed a lawsuit against Mr. Johnson and AUHS for retaliation, a hostile work environment, and other violations. This past September, a state jury awarded each of them more than $1 million in damages — and declared Mr. Johnson to be “unfit or incompetent” for the operational roles he had held at AUHS. The outcome is being appealed.
By the time of the trial in 2021, Ms. Bralock had devoted nearly four decades of her life to nursing. After starting as an RN, Ms. Bralock trained to become a certified nurse midwife. She then spent years cultivating her academic credentials and, in 1991, began educating others as skilled nurses. According to her testimony, she became a professor and then a department chair at Azusa Pacific University, a Christian-based college. About three years into her tenure, Mr. Johnson came knocking.
At that time, the nursing program at AUHS was still in its infancy. Mr. Johnson and Ms. Dang, a former Vietnamese refugee, had founded AUHS as a vocational school in 1993, when Ms. Dang was just 24. After it got traction, they began developing more advanced programs in pharmacy, clinical research, and — as of 2007 — nursing.
Hired as associate dean for the AUHS nursing school in 2010, Ms. Bralock quickly clashed with the founders. Despite not having graduated from college himself , Mr. Johnson insisted on controlling what he called “his” curriculum, she testified, ignoring the suggestions of faculty and administrators.
When she was promoted to dean the following year, Ms. Bralock gained oversight of the student application process — only to be overruled by Ms. Dang, who forced her to admit candidates who would go on to fail board exams, she told jurors.
Meanwhile Mr. Johnson meddled in hiring, bringing aboard an unqualified faculty member without informing either Ms. Bralock or AUHS’ then-president. He started meeting the young woman behind closed doors, encouraging her to wear revealing outfits and stiletto heels instead of scrubs, Ms. Bralock said in court — adding that the woman, who later accused Mr. Johnson of harassment, told her she feared losing her job if she didn’t comply.
It wasn’t the only example of Mr. Johnson giving unwanted attention to women at AUHS, according to court documents: Another employee accused Mr. Johnson of unwelcome hugging, hair touching, and shoulder massages; at an internal meeting to discuss his behavior, he reached across his wife, Ms. Dang, to stroke the employee’s hair again.
Suggestive talk was common during mandatory, ostensibly religious sessions hosted by Mr. Johnson, jurors heard. One series of meditations was dubbed “Morning Dew,” Ms. Bralock testified, with Mr. Johnson handing out flyers that included, in one case, a scantily clad woman waiting by a window to offer the reader “the favor that God has set before thee.”
At Morning Dew, Mr. Johnson asked employees to repeat and interpret phrases he had written such as “let me move inside you … rise inside you” as he hovered behind each speaker in turn — a practice that felt both uncomfortable and un-Christian , Ms. Bralock testified.
Sexual imagery played a role in AUHS recruitment, too: Mr. Johnson testified that he sought out future students at nearby comic-book conferences, where he took pictures with attendees in risqué costumes, commented on women’s appearances, and handed out AUHS flyers that showed off a self-styled vigilante called “The Pastor” and a bosomy female superhero in a crop top and crotch-hugging miniskirt.
The same sexualized female character, sporting high-heeled boots and crosses on her shoulders, appeared on a 10-foot banner in the school’s lobby, Ms. Bralock testified.
Tensions rose in 2015, as AUHS was seeking an additional accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. After a three-day visit, WASC officials criticized the school’s “idiosyncratic leadership structure,” finding that Mr. Johnson lacked the “qualifications and experience” to be chief operating officer — his title at the time — and faced multiple conflicts of interest, especially if he were to be accused of wrongdoing, according to a report presented at trial.
Neither Mr. Johnson nor Ms. Dang could properly call themselves “doctor,” the report added — although Ms. Dang, who remains an owner and trustee of AUHS, continues to use the title on the school’s Web site at this writing.
WASC refused to accredit the school, jurors heard, until Mr. Johnson halted any direct involvement in its operations. He eventually did step back, along with Ms. Dang, but not until 2016, after Ms. Bralock had already been fired, according to testimony.
In the fraught months after the WASC visit, Mr. Johnson’s behavior led to a flurry of discrimination and harassment accusations from students and staff, according to court documents. Among these claims: Mr. Johnson showed preferential treatment to attractive women; pressed up against a woman when hugging her; made lewd comments around students such as “she should have come naked”; and stared down a student’s top.
A sexual harassment training session was organized for AUHS staff, according to testimony, but Mr. Johnson was so disruptive that he was asked to leave by moderators. At trial, Mr. Johnson denied he was a harasser. “There must be an agenda” behind the accusations, he said in court. “Sometimes people have a problem with [other] people being successful.”
Ms. Bralock and another administrator, Brandon Fryman, spoke with one of the complainants but were quickly removed from the case by Mr. Johnson, they testified. Not long afterward, the AUHS president resigned after multiple run-ins with Mr. Johnson. Ms. Bralock and Mr. Fryman were suspended the same day, and all three officials were escorted off campus.
A few months later, Ms. Bralock and Mr. Fryman were back to AUHS and officially fired. Ms. Bralock’s meeting lasted only 10 minutes, she told the jury. The purported reasons were murky: At trial, Mr. Johnson said he believed Ms. Bralock and Mr. Fryman were scheming with a former employee to open a competing school but offered no evidence of such a plot. In testimony, Ms. Bralock flatly denied the claim; since being fired, she has taught as an adjunct professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and no rival school has emerged.
Mr. Johnson was never barred from AUHS events, nor from interacting with students, he testified; the harassment investigations ended without any significant discipline . He remains a school trustee along with Ms. Dang, and both continue to be featured in AUHS videos and updates.
Ms. Bralock’s upward trajectory in medical education, meanwhile, faltered after she was fired, she testified: She’d like someday to become a university president but knows that her UCLA teaching gig — while fulfilling — is a step down from being dean of a nursing school.
“I had to eat,” she told the jury.
» Read Ms. Bralock’s complaint in the case
» See some of the flyers passed out by Mr. Johnson
» Watch a promo video for Mr. Johnson’s violent antihero comic book “The Pastor”
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Bralock v. American University of Health Sciences, Inc. We select “Bad Boss” cases to illustrate the continuing relevance of employee protection laws for our newsletter’s audience, which includes attorneys and former TELG clients.
Ms. Bralock was represented by Law Office of Twila S. White.