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)
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This Husband and Wife Teamed Up to Become Our First-Ever Joint Bad Bosses
For Justin Driskell and several of his co-workers, the construction site in Charlotte, N.C., seemed “hellish”: Working for Summit Contracting Group, Inc. under a tight deadline, their crew labored without safety equipment, put in exhausting hours, and suffered under a superintendent who drank at lunch and had fits of rage, Mr. Driskell testified in court proceedings.
After a run-in with the superintendent, Mr. Driskell complained about the man’s drinking to Summit’s chief executive, Marc Padgett; Mr. Driskell’s father Tom, who also worked for Summit, echoed his son’s safety concerns to both Mr. Padgett and his wife Nicole, the company’s top administrative officer, according to testimony.
The Padgetts, who live in Jacksonville, Fla., reacted curiously: They somehow figured that the Driskells might be plotting against Summit, Nicole Padgett testified.
Still, the couple agreed to send a senior employee to the work site to investigate. The employee testified that he took the superintendent out for lunch, bought him a beer, and later wrote Mr. Padgett an e-mail with his verdict: The younger Mr. Driskell just needed to “grow a pair of balls.”
Mr. Padgett replied that he agreed.
About a day later, Justin Driskell came across the superintendent after hours, drinking in a parking lot with a co-worker. The men talked, got into a shoving match — and then, according to the co-worker’s testimony, the supervisor punched Mr. Driskell, slammed him onto the concrete, and told him he was fired.
Mr. Driskell ended up in the emergency room.
The Padgetts’ response, according to testimony: They laughed off Mr. Driskell’s injuries; portrayed him as the aggressor, despite an eyewitness account to the contrary; refused to answer his calls about returning to work; “accepted” a resignation that Mr. Driskell said he never tendered; and awarded the violent superintendent a larger-than-expected bonus at the end of the project.
Marc and Nicole Padgett are our first-ever joint Bad Bosses of the Month.
Justin Driskell filed a lawsuit against Florida-based Summit, claiming wrongful termination and retaliation, among other things. Earlier this year a federal jury sided with the construction worker, awarding him more than $750,000 in damages, an amount that will likely be modified after the resolution of post-trial motions. An appeal has been filed.
The Padgetts are a power couple in Jacksonville, where Summit is headquartered and where they’re building a flashy house. Summit, founded in its current form by Marc Padgett in 2007, has built more than 100,000 units across more than 30 states; in 2018, the National Multifamily Housing Council ranked it as the top apartment builder in the U.S. Nicole started at Summit as an accounting temp; she became chief administrative officer in 2009 and married Marc Padgett in 2013, according to testimony. In a recent article she describes herself as someone with “a really big mouth” who doesn’t “back down from a fight.”
Site safety was a delicate subject at Summit, where an unsatisfactory update could draw a tirade from Ms. Padgett: She read an e-mail aloud in court in which she carped that too many accidents were being reported to government regulators and called the end result “A F***ING NIGHTMARE!!!”
It was in this environment that Mr. Driskell complained to Mr. Padgett about dangerous practices at the Charlotte project — including the drinking and temper of Dan Rhyner, the project’s superintendent, according to testimony.
At trial, Mr. Padgett and Mr. Driskell offered differing versions of an initial phone call between them: Mr. Padgett told jurors that alcohol wasn’t mentioned, while Mr. Driskell insisted that he warned the Padgetts that Mr. Rhyner was drinking during daytime and might do “something stupid” on the site.
In a separate call by the elder Mr. Driskell to Mr. Padgett, overheard by Ms. Padgett while she sat on a recliner beside her husband, Mr. Rhyner’s drinking was discussed — and the Padgetts began to suspect that the Driskells were somehow setting up a lawsuit. The Summit leaders even went so far as to consult an attorney, Ms. Padgett testified.
“I can’t recall every item that [made] me have that suspicion,” Ms. Padgett said in a deposition.
At any rate, the man sent by the Padgetts to investigate the Charlotte site never took urine tests or found much to report besides Justin Driskell’s supposed lack of manhood: Upon hearing about Mr. Rhyner’s drinking, Mr. Driskell testified, the Summit employee simply shrugged that “nobody is perfect.”
“He just told me to shut my mouth … and let it go,” Mr. Driskell said in a deposition.
It was tough to move on, however, since the superintendent now knew that Mr. Driskell had reported him to the Padgetts, according to testimony.
The two men’s confrontation followed in short order. The next evening, Mr. Driskell arrived at the parking lot of the hotel where many Summit workers were staying and encountered Mr. Rhyner drinking beer with Bristen Breaux, a friend of Mr. Driskell. They invited him to join them, but Mr. Rhyner already was “wobbly” from beer and his simmering anger quickly rose to violence, according to Mr. Driskell’s testimony.
At trial, Mr. Breaux told jurors that he didn’t see who started the tussle. However, he said Mr. Driskell only shielded himself from blows and didn’t throw punches even as he was being pounded on the ground. When Mr. Driskell stood up and tried to backpedal away, Mr. Breaux added, Mr. Rhyner pursued him.
A flurry of phone calls and e-mails followed the fight, including an e-mail from Mr. Driskell to Mr. Padgett with a photo that showed his bloodied face. Mr. Driskell went to the hospital, where an E.R. doctor found displaced cartilage around his throat and swelling around his eye, according to court documents.
Mr. Driskell also reported the incident to local police.
Mr. Rhyner, who claimed that he was the victim, didn’t seek medical attention; instead he drove home to Nashville, Tenn., six hours away.
The morning after the fight, the Padgetts began constructing their own version of what happened — and put the blame squarely on Mr. Driskell. In an e-mail included in court records, Ms. Padgett instructed a Summit official to file a human resources report saying that “Dan was attacked by Justin,” and that Mr. Driskell suffered “no bodily damage whatsoever other than a superficial scratch” caused by losing his balance due to alcohol.
This contradicted the statements of Mr. Driskell and Mr. Breaux, which were taken immediately after the fight by a Summit manager in Charlotte, according to the manager’s testimony. Even after being informed of this, however, Ms. Padgett sent a further e-mail — also filed in court — asking the H.R. official to make a police report naming Mr. Driskell as the aggressor.
Later the Padgetts asked Mr. Breaux to supply a new account of the fight — a statement that, as Mr. Breaux admitted at trial, omitted several notable points, including Mr. Rhyner’s angry firing of Mr. Driskell as the men parted, which didn’t fit Summit’s assertion that Mr. Driskell had quit.
Based on her own testimony, Ms. Padgett wasn’t a stranger to shading the truth: In a legal dispute with a different Summit employee, she recounted via an e-mail she read aloud to jurors, she asked a company to backdate a letter about its problems with that employee “so it doesn’t look like we got the letter after we received the notice of the hearing.”
Her husband’s approving response, which Ms. Padgett also read aloud: “He is such a piece of sh*t. You were right. … I love you.”
As for Mr. Driskell, he testified that he never quit Summit — and that he absolutely wanted to continue working for the construction company.
“I had bills to pay,” he said. “I couldn’t just walk away.”
Nonetheless, the Padgetts instructed their managers not to take his calls about returning to work; ultimately Ms. Padgett, after speaking with an attorney, asked a Summit official to tell Mr. Driskell that “we accept your resignation,” according to testimony.
Mr. Rhyner, the supervisor, returned to the worksite and finished the project a few weeks later. Mr. Padgett was asked to review the recommended bonus schedule for the crew: He boosted Mr. Rhyner’s payout by 25% beyond the suggested level, according to testimony, and gave an extra 30% to Mr. Breaux, who had tweaked his account of the fight.
Meanwhile, Mr. Driskell found himself shut out of the construction industry; he took a job at Terminix. In court documents he told of depression and recurring nightmares; family members called him a changed man — a “recluse,” according to his father.
The Padgetts maintain their high social standing in Jacksonville, where both are involved in directing city development. Their new property, on a bluff overlooking the St. Johns River, will boast a 16,000-square-foot mansion with six bedrooms and a two-story closet; two guest houses; an infinity pool; and a view of nearby Dames Point Bridge, where they got engaged.
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Driskell v. Summit Contracting Group, 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. Driskell was represented by Van Kampen Law, P.C.
At a Pittsburgh Jail, This Bad Boss Put the ‘FML’ in FMLA
Over nearly 30 years of work at the Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh, Walter Mikulan became a father figure to many of the officers who served under him.
“He was our teacher,” testified one former captain at the jail. “He was a true leader,” testified another.
Understated and discreet, Mr. Mikulan — “Mick” to his staff — had started his career as a corrections officer in 1984. He rose through the ranks to become a major, the third highest rank at the Pittsburgh facility, with responsibility for the entire jail during his evening shift.
In 2012, however, a hard-nosed Army veteran named Orlando Harper became the jail’s new warden and, according to court testimony, launched an obsessive campaign to “combat” what he saw as overuse of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) — the law that requires employers to accommodate workers who need time off to take care of themselves or family members.
Mr. Harper was especially ticked by senior officers who took FMLA leave, Mr. Mikulan and others testified, since the warden believed that supervisors should set an example. That posed a problem for Mr. Mikulan, diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and for other older officers who needed leave for health issues.
Before long Mr. Mikulan, who was under doctor’s orders to take sporadic days off, found himself being written up for trivial issues with paperwork — incidents that showed Mr. Mikulan’s unacceptable “insubordination,” the warden would insist at trial. As one example, according to testimony, Mr. Mikulan was disciplined because a subordinate had signed a form electronically rather than with a pen.
After three such incidents, and with no warning, Mr. Harper fired Mr. Mikulan after offering the major a chance to resign to avoid “being disgraced,” according to testimony.
Mr. Mikulan, then 58, was escorted out of the jail in view of other officers; his job was filled by a much younger man.
Orlando Harper is our new Bad Boss of the Month.
Mr. Mikulan filed a lawsuit against Allegheny County, claiming both age discrimination and FMLA retaliation. (It’s illegal to fire employees for exercising their rights under the FMLA.) At trial, a federal jury rejected Mr. Harper’s insubordination rationale and awarded Mr. Mikulan nearly $900,000 in damages. Late last year, the parties settled for a total of $1.15 million, including attorney fees.
Orlando Harper had arrived as warden of the Pittsburgh jail — and as Mr. Mikulan’s boss — in 2012 after spending more than two decades in the Washington, D.C. Department of Corrections. According to testimony, one of his immediate priorities was to curb FMLA “abuse,” which county officials had previously identified as a cause of budget overruns, since the jail paid overtime to cover the shifts of some officers on leave.
Mr. Harper “had a bug about FML,” a former jail captain told the jury. “He believed that we needed to lead by example … He didn’t want [supervisors] off on FMLA.”
Mr. Mikulan testified that he felt singled out in the warden’s staff meetings, where FMLA leave was often discussed: “He would say, ‘If even a major abuses Family Medical Leave, he’s going to be terminated’ — and he would be looking directly at me.”
In other meetings that Mr. Mikulan didn’t attend, a different former captain testified, Mr. Harper said that he “needed both of his majors [at work] on a daily basis” — and that the warden clearly “was not happy” that Mr. Mikulan was using leave.
“There was a comment that [Mr. Mikulan and another, older major] would not be there by the end of the year,” the former captain told jurors. “I felt that Major Mikulan [had been] good to me through the years — that he needed to know — and I asked him, ‘You got plans on retiring or something?'”
Mr. Mikulan did not: He planned to work until “65 or 66 years old. Social Security kicks in, Medicare kicks in. Bingo. You have a nice retirement,” he testified. But his seniority and health issues, he said, made him a target at the jail.
The warden’s FMLA fixation wasn’t limited to Mr. Mikulan, jurors heard. Daniel Troiano, a former captain, testified that he took intermittent FMLA leave for stress after suffering a heart attack while at the jail — and that Mr. Harper ripped him in a meeting for taking “that much” leave, despite doctor’s orders to do so.
“He says to me, ‘I don’t understand how a captain can be stressed,'” Mr. Troiano told the court.
Not long afterward, after an incident where a subordinate forgot to stash her gun in a locker before entering work during his shift, Mr. Troiano was offered a choice between resigning or attending a hearing in which he expected to be fired despite his minor role in the matter, he testified.
Afraid of losing his pension, he resigned.
Mr. Troiano attended the trial despite being on his “last leg,” jurors heard from Mr. Mikulan’s attorney. The witness “barely made it in here and barely made it out of here … [It] may be one of the last things that man will ever do,” the attorney said in court — and indeed, Mr. Troiano died a few months later.
Another former captain told jurors that the shabby treatment of Mr. Troiano and Mr. Mikulan, among others, showed how disciplinary action was used by Mr. Harper — most noticeably for older supervisory officers, who were repeatedly dinged for offenses that were “frankly nonsense” and “ridiculous discipline … to the point where they had to retire.”
“I think there was a threat of termination hanging over my head and a lot of other people’s heads,” he testified, citing his own medical issues. “After Warden Harper came in [people] counted down how long they had to go until they could retire.”
The captain told jurors that he, too, opted to retire upon reaching 55, the youngest age for such a move.
Under Mr. Harper’s regime, all three of Mr. Mikulan’s write-ups — which the major called “minor” — were about paperwork from his staff.
The first incident concerned a “roll call book” that wasn’t completed by the usual deadline. This task was supposed to be handled by subordinates, according to testimony, but Mr. Mikulan was given a “counseling session” for allowing the lapse, which he learned about on his day off — and which he told jurors he immediately arranged to have finished, still ahead of when it was needed.
The second incident came a couple of months later, when one of Mr. Mikulan’s captains signed an “Overtime Justification Sheet” electronically rather than manually.
And three months after that, Mr. Mikulan got a black mark for failing to turn in his staff’s “Property Accountability Sheets” on time — despite testimony that he had gotten an extension. The sheets were a new formality requested by Mr. Harper, jurors heard: Acknowledgments that each employee was familiar with the county’s property regulations.
None of these disciplinary actions was logged as insubordination — and Mr. Harper’s deputy, who meted out the discipline, told the court that the resulting record didn’t justify the firing of Mr. Mikulan, whom he agreed was a dedicated employee.
Stressed out by the new warden’s scrutiny, Mr. Mikulan’s demeanor “changed dramatically,” according to the major’s wife, Mary Mikulan, who gave her testimony sporting a scarf to cover baldness that was due to chemotherapy treatment for cancer. Her husband previously had been proud and upbeat about his work, she told jurors, but now “he was more stressed, more frustrated. Seemed to talk a lot more, more negative about his job than positive.”
“I would just get to the point where, you know, ‘Just quit,'” Ms. Mikulan testified. “But that wasn’t him. He didn’t quit.”
Instead, he was suddenly fired. Less than a year after Mr. Harper’s arrival, and shortly after the property-sheet issue, the warden called Mr. Mikulan into his office.
“He says, ‘Major Mikulan, the reason we are here today is to terminate your employment with Allegheny County.’ Jeez, I almost dropped on the floor,” Mr. Mikulan told the court. “[But then he] said, ‘I’m going to do you a favor. I’m going to allow you to resign instead of me terminating you.'”
Mr. Mikulan bluntly refused, jurors heard, and Mr. Harper directed his deputy to escort him out of the jail. At the time, said Mr. Mikulan, no reason was offered for his termination. On the same day, according to court documents, Mr. Harper also fired Ruth Howse, a jail administrator who had recently returned from FMLA leave.
“When I left, I felt devastated,” Mr. Mikulan testified. “I felt like I was just beat down with a stick … I really didn’t want to go anywhere, see anybody. I hated to answer the phone because … everybody was calling to find out what happened …. They were stating that they saw it on TV. They were stating they read it in the paper.”
At trial, Mr. Harper was asked repeatedly to justify his claim that Mr. Mikulan had been insubordinate and deserved to be fired, despite conclusions to the contrary by his deputy, who was Mr. Mikulan’s direct supervisor. The warden steadfastly insisted that each of the three disciplinary actions amounted to insubordination — but acknowledged that he never asked his deputy’s opinion on the matter, or on Mr. Mikulan’s performance.
“I don’t have time to ask who, what, when of everything that’s going on inside of a jail, sir,” he replied in court.
The warden also acknowledged that he had never described Mr. Mikulan’s behavior as insubordinate in any jail document — nor read such a description, either.
Since his firing, Mr. Mikulan testified, he hasn’t been able to find another job in corrections, nor an “equal job” more generally. After collecting unemployment he worked briefly as a college safety officer and then as a school security guard until 2016, when he opted to trigger Social Security since it paid more than the job. He’d still happily work, he told jurors, if it pays “a decent wage.”
Mr. Harper, meanwhile, remains warden of the Allegheny County Bureau of Corrections.
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Mikulan v. Allegheny County. 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 Bad Boss Fired a Manager Who Dared to Question His Workplace Canoodling
For Irene Riggs, caring for older people was a “calling.” She began working in nursing homes in 1990; in 2006 she was named as executive director of the Life Care Center in scenic Sandpoint, Idaho, a lakeside haven named by USA Today as America’s “most beautiful small town.”
Ms. Riggs had an exemplary run at Life Care until 2015, when, according to court documents, her married boss — Timothy Needles, a regional vice president — began to flirt with a nurse at Ms. Riggs’ facility.
At a staff costume party where the nurse had dressed as a cat, the pair acted intimately enough to make other staffers squirm, Ms. Riggs testified, and over a period of weeks they had “fondled each other in an office …, suggestively prowl[ed] at each other, … and otherwise made it obvious that they were in a relationship,” according to a court filing.
Ms. Riggs believed that supervisor/subordinate affairs were forbidden at Life Care and potentially illegal, she said in court — but even more than that, she fretted about the rancorous, sexually charged atmosphere that had descended on her facility. Staff members reported sighting the couple at local restaurants, she testified, and they complained that the nurse, Caren Bays, was getting favors in return.
Although she feared the encounter so much that her hands shook, Ms. Riggs confronted Mr. Needles on behalf of herself and her staff. Her boss became angry and denied the affair, Ms. Riggs said in court documents, and her subsequent complaints to human-resources officials went nowhere.
Not long afterward, according to a court filing, Ms. Bays accused Ms. Riggs of “abusing” a belligerent resident by unplugging his loud television — and Mr. Needles seized upon the incident to fire the executive director. After being dismissed for cause, a “crushed” Ms. Riggs was unable to find another job in elder care and ended up cleaning toilets.
Tim Needles is our new Bad Boss of the Month.
Ms. Riggs filed a lawsuit against Life Care Centers of America, Inc., which is based in Tennessee, claiming retaliation and wrongful termination. A federal jury in Spokane, Wash., awarded her more than $1.5 million in damages, including $500,000 for “loss of enjoyment of life”; subsequent judicial orders tacked on more than $500,000 for attorney fees, tax offsets, and other items.
Life Care has appealed the judgment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which has yet to hear arguments on the matter.
As executive director of the 124-bed assisted living facility in Sandpoint, Ms. Riggs had watched over an extensive staff — and all of the older residents, whom she said at trial that she “loved.” She once drove a resident’s spouse four hours so that the couple wouldn’t have to spend Christmas apart.
Ms. Riggs’ working relationship with Mr. Needles also was “excellent” before their conflict, she testified, and Mr. Needles had given her positive reviews since becoming her boss in 2012. But after she challenged his behavior with Ms. Bays, she said in court, things changed.
By that time Mr. Needles already had shown favoritism toward Ms. Bays, according to testimony from Elizabeth Beddingfield, a former director of social services at Life Care. Specifically, she told the jury, Mr. Needles became angry and dismissive when Ms. Beddingfield lodged a harassment complaint that claimed Ms. Bays was a workplace bully.
“He jumped on me …,” she testified. “He just dismissed me and discredited what I had to say; said that I was wrong for filing [the complaint].”
Ms. Beddingfield quit shortly afterward.
Faced with complaints about the couple from Ms. Beddingfield and others — and a barrage of gossip, including a sighting of Mr. Needles and Ms. Bays at the Texas Roadhouse in Coeur d’Alene, an hour distant — Ms. Riggs decided to address the matter, she testified. After reviewing Life Care policy and praying, she called a face-to-face meeting with Mr. Needles, who at that time had been married for more than 25 years.
“I was very nervous …,” she said in court. “I showed him my [shaking] hands, and I said that my staff had brought me some concerns about his behavior [with] Caren Bays …. [T]hey were [being] flirtatious with each other to the point where it made the staff uncomfortable.”
Mr. Needles flatly denied any affair, according to Ms. Riggs’ testimony, and he also claimed he never went to Starbucks, where she told him Life Care staffers had reported another rendezvous. But when Ms. Riggs emptied her overflowing trash can later that day, she told jurors, she spotted a Starbucks receipt on top — with Mr. Needles’ name on it.
Feeling lied to, she reported Mr. Needles to corporate HR in Tennessee. Soon afterward, she testified, she got a call from Mr. Needles, who told her to stay away from Ms. Bays, and a call from the top HR person at Life Care warning that Ms. Riggs “should be very careful.”
“People’s lives are involved,” she said she was told. “You have to make sure that you are very sure about this.”
Ms. Riggs began to fear for her job. “It felt like they were protecting Tim Needles,” she told the court. And indeed, during an investigatory call with HR, Ms. Riggs was “berated” and reduced to tears for daring even to raise the matter, according to the testimony of an employee who witnessed the call.
The only result of her complaint, as far as Ms. Riggs knew: She was instructed to tell Ms. Bays to “be a positive member of the team,” and to get her to re-sign the corporate “Code of Conduct.” Mr. Needles was not disciplined, to her knowledge.
From that point onward, Ms. Riggs told the court, Ms. Bays began “watching me like a hawk” — standing by the executive director’s office door and “eavesdropping,” in the words of another witness.
A few weeks later, Ms. Riggs was called to the room of a resident who was paralyzed from the waist down. The man had a history of angry behavior, jurors heard, and on this day he had cranked his television so loud that it could be heard throughout the entire 24-bed wing. He was ignoring the nursing staff’s pleas to turn it down, and had hidden the remote.
Ms. Riggs tried to reason with the man, but got only profanities in return. Finally, telling him he was violating other patients’ rights, she unplugged the television set. She told him he could watch it again if he was willing to set it to a proper volume.
A few months prior, Ms. Riggs testified, she had asked Mr. Needles for permission to discharge this resident. Her boss had ruled against it, saying they needed more documentation of the man’s disruptive behavior. Now she renewed her request, based on the new incident, and Mr. Needles approved it, she said in court.
Ms. Riggs also sent a copy of the discharge notice to Life Care’s regional ombudsman, who acts as an advocate for patients. It raised no red flags. At trial the ombudsman said she discussed the unplugging with Ms. Riggs shortly after it happened, concluding that “it was the correct thing to do to defuse the situation.”
A couple of weeks after the TV showdown, however, Life Care received an anonymous complaint that painted Ms. Riggs’ actions far more darkly: Unplugging the television amounted to abuse, it claimed — a firing offense.
In a court document, Ms. Riggs says the complaint came from Ms. Bays.
Life Care took the complaint seriously — and Mr. Needles led the response, according to his own testimony. He promptly passed along the report to Idaho’s Bureau of Facility Standards (BFS), which regulates medical providers, adding two key elements: He described Ms. Riggs as “angry” and the TV unplugging as “a form of punishment.” Neither characterization, he agreed at trial, was in the original complaint, but together they bolstered the case for Ms. Riggs’ dismissal.
Just a few days later, Mr. Needles fired Ms. Riggs via a letter. “I was crushed,” she recalled in court. According to testimony, staffers at Life Center were instructed to tell patients that the popular Ms. Riggs had taken a new job.
In reality, Ms. Riggs had little hope of a new job. She wanted to stay in elder care, but she didn’t get callbacks after revealing the “official” reason she left Life Care — even though Mr. Needles never filed the official abuse report that would have deprived her of a license to work.
Eventually Ms. Riggs gave up on healthcare and began working for Maria’s, a local cleaning service. “They were the only ones who would actually give me a call,” she told jurors.
Later she qualified as an insurance agent, and began working on commission at a company that doesn’t offer benefits.
Mr. Needles, meanwhile, moved to Utah. According to his LinkedIn profile, he is “[w]orking with a wonderful group of professionals … Love it!”
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Riggs v. Life Care Centers of America, 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, Ms. Riggs was represented by Skidmore & Fomina, PLLC.
This Bad Boss Left a Mark on Employees — Sometimes Literally
On her first day at a new surgery center in Cullman, Ala., nurse Dana Anderson happily took a photo of her co-workers to commemorate the occasion.
Kevin Johnson, an anesthesiologist who served as the facility’s medical director, sneered at her Dorothy-style optimism: “I don’t know where you think you are, but you’re not in Kansas anymore,” said Dr. Johnson, Ms. Anderson recalled in court documents. “You and Toto need to get the f**k back where you came from.”
Over the next five-plus years, Ms. Anderson testified, the doctor would ruin many more moments at work. A part-owner of the surgery center who styled himself as “Genghis Khan,” Dr. Johnson brought guns to the workplace, bragged about his sexual prowess, and painted female employees as “whores,” “slaves,” and members of his “harem,” according to testimony.
On a communal calendar he would write a “Sex Word of the Week,” which he’d explain in detail; other times he would distribute pornography to co-workers, promote coarse nicknames, and “pole dance” in the patients’ recovery room, Ms. Anderson said in exhibits filed in court.
Staff members who resisted the hypersexual atmosphere were punished by Dr. Johnson, according to court documents — including, in some cases, by delaying anesthetic care they had requested for patients. The 6’2″ Dr. Johnson tried to force himself on the much smaller Ms. Anderson on several occasions, she testified, once by trapping her in a room at the end of a workday and demanding that she submit and “take his mark” — that is, get a tattoo that would denote sexual slavery to him.
When she refused, Ms. Anderson said in court documents, the doctor humiliated her further before releasing her to join her husband, who was waiting in the parking lot: “You’re going to get down on your hands and knees and beg your master to get out.”
Intimidated, she complied.
Kevin Johnson is our new Bad Boss of the Month.
In the end Ms. Anderson resigned, unable to handle the stress at work. Along with three other former nurses, she filed a complaint in federal court against Dr. Johnson, Surgery Center of Cullman, and associated entities, claiming a wide range of wrongdoing at both federal and state levels.
At trial in September 2017, a jury found Dr. Johnson personally liable for assault and battery and emotional cruelty against Ms. Anderson, awarding her $500,000 in damages. The jury also found Surgical Care Affiliates, LLC — the practice’s ownership — liable for the hostile work environment faced by Ms. Anderson, awarding her a further $500,000, an amount later reduced by the judge to $300,000.
Ms. Anderson’s claims were the only ones to reach trial. Two of the other plaintiffs, Kari Walker and Belinda Beverly, negotiated judgments in the amounts of $450,000 and $187,500 plus attorney fees, respectively, while Kathy Lackey’s claims were rejected before trial by the judge. (Ms. Lackey has filed an appeal.)
During court proceedings the married Dr. Johnson admitted having affairs with several employees, including Ms. Walker, but denied demanding “master/slave” relationships or — as Ms. Anderson had testified — requiring tattoos “marking” women as his. He admitted in a deposition that he paid for a tattoo for Ms. Walker, however, and also that he brought guns to work and wrote sex-related words on the calendar.
He noted that he sometimes wrote Bible verses there, too.
On critical legal matters such as abuse and battery, Dr. Johnson said in testimony, Ms. Anderson and the other nurses were “lying,” a conclusion rejected by the jury. Overall, court documents paint a vivid picture of a facility overseen by, in the words of one filing, a “perverse, misogynistic, and domineering abuse[r] of women.”
Dr. Johnson’s bad behavior was a holdover from his previous job at Woodland Medical Center, also in Cullman, according to testimony from Ms. Walker, who had worked there as a surgical nurse. Dr. Johnson openly watched pornography in his Woodland office, Ms. Walker said in documents, and often would invite female employees to join him.
In an affidavit, Christopher Lucas, an obstetrician at Woodland, also described Dr. Johnson’s pornography habit and said he witnessed his colleague in other inappropriate acts, including ushering a nurse into a delivery room for sex. One Woodland nurse — not Ms. Walker — told Dr. Lucas that Dr. Johnson had paid for her to get a tattoo of a devil with its tail pointing towards her crotch, Dr. Lucas said in the document.
While at Woodland Dr. Johnson also harassed Dr. Lucas’ daughter, who worked there as a nurse, eventually causing her to quit, according to Dr. Lucas’ affidavit. After the daughter filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Dr. Lucas said in the statement, Dr. Johnson threatened to burn down the family’s house.
(In his deposition, Dr. Johnson said the EEOC complaint was a trumped-up response to his reporting of Dr. Lucas for drug abuse.)
Dr. Johnson’s behavior didn’t improve after he left Woodland to open the new Surgery Center of Cullman, Ms. Anderson told the court: Not only did he still watch pornography at work, he burned extreme porn onto CDs that he handed out “like candy” to staff members, she recalled in notes filed as an exhibit in the case.
In private Dr. Johnson could be sympathetic, Ms. Anderson said in a court document: At times he commiserated and offered her counsel on her difficult marriage, for instance. But he also betrayed such confidences to torment her in front of colleagues, she added, and used her vulnerability as fodder for cruel mind games.
At one point, she said in a deposition, Dr. Johnson texted her a risqué photo of himself and “ordered” her to share a revealing photo in return — something that she resisted but ultimately felt forced to do. Another day, when she became emotional about her marriage, he showed her videos of people committing suicide and said, “Sometimes, there’s only one thing left to do,” she told the court.
The doctor also abused her physically, Ms. Anderson testified. While she was on the phone with a patient, she said in a deposition, Dr. Johnson came up behind her and began choking her so hard that she couldn’t breathe or talk.
“I was frozen with fear,” she said in the deposition.
On a different day, Ms. Anderson testified, Dr. Johnson seemed to overhear her saying something that displeased him and — as he walked by her desk — kicked her hard enough to raise a bruise.
(Dr. Johnson, in a deposition, denied both incidents. Indeed, he asserted, the entire case “has been a lie from the very beginning.”)
After receiving a series of anonymous harassment complaints about Dr. Johnson via a hotline, the Surgery Center’s human resources manager interviewed several of the nurses, including Ms. Anderson. But Gregory Windham, the facility’s managing partner, concluded that nothing had been proved.
“You got three or four little girls here who have all gotten together and decided that they’ve got all these accusations,” Dr. Windham said in a deposition. “You know, it’s a he said/she said.”
Persistent complaints prompted another investigation, however, and Ms. Anderson was interviewed again. Afterward Dr. Johnson approached her and mimed shooting her with an imaginary gun, she told the court. The gesture resonated: In his deposition, Dr. Johnson said he had brought real guns into work on several occasions — and estimated that he owns three AR-15 rifles, “five to six” shotguns, and around eight pistols, including a Glock pistol that he keeps in his car.
The doctor also began tapping his fingernails ominously when he was near Ms. Anderson, she said in documents, aiming to unnerve her. Such drumming is often called the devil’s tattoo.
Around this time, Ms. Anderson and her co-plaintiffs upped the ante with a complaint to the EEOC. The Surgery Center’s board asked Dr. Johnson to step down as medical director and to take a leave of absence, according to court documents — a two-month period during which he went to Kansas for psychotherapy, he said in his deposition.
Dr. Johnson described the leave as “a wonderful experience,” after which he returned to work.
Ms. Anderson, meanwhile, was suffering from anxiety attacks, stress, depression, and loss of sleep, she testified. After Dr. Johnson returned, she told the court, she could “barely function” in her job and took medical leave to seek care and counseling; she later resigned without returning to work.
Ms. Anderson filed a second EEOC complaint and, shortly afterward, joined her three co-plaintiffs to seek justice in federal court. She got a new job at a surgery center in nearby Decatur.
Ms. Anderson, Ms. Walker, and Ms. Beverly all now have judgments in their favor, but their case remains in post-trial motions — in part, concerning how much they should be awarded in legal fees. Ms. Lackey’s appeal proceeds on a separate track, while Dr. Johnson has asked the judge to undo Ms. Anderson’s jury verdict.
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Anderson v. Surgery Center of Cullman, 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, Ms. Anderson and her co-plaintiffs were represented by Haynes & Haynes, P.C.
When an Employee’s Son Got Sick, This Bad Boss Found Reasons to Fire the Mother
Maria Gonzalez’s motherly instinct went into overdrive when her 21-year-old son, Pedro Moreno, began suffering from a kidney condition that led to three years of surgical procedures, infections, complications, and about 30 hospital stays.
Drawing on her experience as a medical assistant at a pain clinic in San Diego, Ms. Gonzalez became a loud crusader for her disabled son’s proper treatment, which included drugs to fight the pain that Pedro often rated as “10” on a 10-point scale.
Ms. Gonzalez was in an unusual position: Her employer, a part of the Kaiser Permanente group, not only provided Pedro’s insurance — it provided his care, too, partly at Ms. Gonzalez’s clinic. And after Ms. Gonzalez started complaining about the quality of Kaiser’s care, she was targeted for retaliation by her supervisor Traci Trask, the clinic’s assistant director, according to a lawsuit.
Along with a senior doctor, Ms. Trask told Pedro that he couldn’t be treated at the clinic anymore, according to the suit. Then Ms. Trask decided that Ms. Gonzalez might be accessing Pedro’s health records improperly. A “sham” investigation followed, according to court filings, during which Ms. Trask wrote out statements for witnesses and put words in a doctor’s mouth. Ms. Gonzalez was fired based on the probe’s results.
Traci Trask is our latest Bad Boss of the Month.
Ms. Gonzalez filed a lawsuit claiming discrimination, retaliation, and wrongful termination. Earlier this year a California state court jury found that Kaiser illegally fired Ms. Gonzalez to avoid the “nuisance” of her association with Pedro, awarding her almost $500,000 in damages. Kaiser has appealed the verdict.
Court records, including medical reports, reveal a complex situation in which Kaiser doctors and administrators were annoyed by Ms. Gonzalez’s repeated requests for medical attention for Pedro, whom the doctors suspected of being a “narcotic seeker” overstating his pain level.
The same people worked with Ms. Gonzalez professionally, and evidently had trouble with her dual role. As the only medical assistant in the clinic’s Pain Management Department, Ms. Gonzalez did for Pedro everything she did for other patients — she checked him in for appointments, took his vital signs, updated his records, tracked the status of medication refills, and so on.
But she was also his emergency contact and she had a durable power of attorney for his health care, according to her lawsuit. Pedro lived with Ms. Gonzalez and she accompanied him to Kaiser hospitals whenever his condition worsened. And during one of Pedro’s visits to the pain clinic, she even took a break so that she could attend the appointment in “mother” mode.
It was this appointment that triggered a reckoning. When Ms. Gonzalez spoke up as a mother to endorse Pedro’s ongoing complaints about Kaiser, she testified in a deposition, the doctor told them that he would no longer see Pedro because Ms. Gonzalez had a “conflict of interest.”
What did he mean, asked Ms. Gonzalez?
“Sooner or later we knew this was coming,” he replied, according to her complaint.
In addition to refusing to see Pedro, the clinic was hesitant to refer him for outside treatment, according to records. Pedro escalated the matter at a meeting with the clinic’s management, including Ms. Trask, but got nowhere. According to Ms. Gonzalez’s complaint, the clinic’s lead doctor told Pedro ominously, “You wouldn’t want anything to happen to your mother, would you?”
Something did happen to her. Within hours, Ms. Trask e-mailed Kaiser administrators to warn them that Pedro would “continue to be persistent” with his demands, according to court documents — and in another e-mail she drew attention to some “hearsay pieces of information” that she believed could justify an internal investigation of his mother.
Ms. Trask took charge of the investigation herself, focusing on the idea that Ms. Gonzalez had used her employee status to access Pedro’s medical records improperly. Ms. Trask suspended Ms. Gonzalez for the duration of the probe and added a “break the glass” notice to Pedro’s records, increasing security in a way that usually requires the patient’s permission — a step that Pedro never requested, according to Ms. Gonzalez’s complaint.
Based on Ms. Trask’s investigation, Kaiser claimed that Ms. Gonzalez had improperly accessed her disabled son’s medical record 16 times, according to court documents. Ms. Gonzalez agreed that she checked Pedro’s record on those occasions — but only based on requests from Pedro or his doctor, and therefore within her scope of duty, she said, which could have been documented easily if Ms. Trask had asked.
Another alleged misdeed: Ms. Trask reported that Ms. Gonzalez had conducted a “pill count” for Pedro’s unused medication, outside her proper duties. Again, Ms. Gonzalez agreed that she had counted pills on several occasions, including once for Pedro, but she testified that it was always explicitly requested by a doctor — and, in this case, had been documented fully by the doctor.
According to court filings, Ms. Trask bolstered her findings with a written statement in which a different doctor said that Ms. Gonzalez shouldn’t be counting pills — except that the statement wasn’t signed and Ms. Trask had never spoken with the doctor on the matter, according to a brief filed on behalf of Ms. Gonzalez.
In the meantime, Pedro’s kidney problems continued. On the evening of his meeting with Ms. Trask, Ms. Gonzalez arrived at home to find her son shivering, fevered, and in pain; she called an ambulance and Pedro was admitted to hospital with septicemia, a blood infection, according to court filings.
Subsequent hospital visits, as documented in court records, showed Ms. Gonzalez’s deep involvement in Pedro’s care while she was suspended from work — sometimes sleeping by his bedside — but also the increasing skepticism of Kaiser doctors.
“His mother is doing most of the talking and she says that she feels that [Pedro] is going to die from so much pain,” says one doctor’s report. “Ironically, she works in the Pain Clinic.”
The following month, while still suspended, Ms. Gonzalez was fired based on Ms. Trask’s findings. Three reasons were cited: Improperly accessing Pedro’s medical records, improperly conducting the pill count, and refusing to admit that her behavior was improper.
Ruling in favor of Ms. Gonzalez, the jury found instead that her association with her disabled son was “a substantial motivating reason” for the termination. It awarded her almost $200,000 for economic damage already done, plus a further $300,000 for damage yet to come. At the time of her firing, Ms. Gonzalez had been the longest-serving staffer in her department; she always received solid performance reviews an a doctor testified that she “really cared about the patients.”
Ms. Trask, meanwhile, left her job at the clinic. She works at a nearby dental practice.
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Gonzalez v. Southern California Permanente Medical Group, 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.