Category Archives: Cases

Wrongful Termination — Former Teacher Awarded $3.5 Million

What a difference being a government employee makes. Most workers are at-will employees and can be terminated without cause on the whim of the employer, but teachers can only be terminated for cause. In the case of Lyndsey Wilcox v. Newark Valley Central School District, that distinction led to a huge verdict.

A jury on Wednesday awarded close to $3.5 million in damages to Wilcox, who alleged she was fired without cause. Wilcox was dating another teacher when it was discovered that he was acting inappropriately toward female students. He was ultimately convicted of sex offenses and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Wilcox successfully argued that she was only terminated for the sins of her boyfriend.

The jury deliberated for about three hours before returning with a verdict awarding Wilcox $351,990 for lost wages and $2.1 million for future lost earnings and $1 million for emotional distress.

Hostile Work Environment — The Law Does Not Promise a Utopian Workplace

I don’t often set forth an entire opinion, but the following case out of the Third Circuit provides a very good summary of what constitutes a “hostile work environment”, while at the same time demonstrating how the facts of a case are dissected and examined.  If you are contemplating a wrongful termination action in general or a hostile work environment action in particular, this case is well worth reading.

The takeaways are:  (1) a mean boss does not (necessarily) a hostile work environment make, and (2) if individual acts are not “hostile”, then even 14 of those acts will not create a hostile work environment.

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Former Apple Employee Sues for Wrongful Termination

Here is a interesting wrongful termination action, in that it illustrates a couple of basic points of wrongful termination and should prove to be very informative on the law as it proceeds.

Wayne Goodrich is a former employee of Apple. As an at-will employee, he could of course be terminated without cause. In December 2011 he was terminated by Apple for “business reasons”, and told that the termination had nothing to do with his job performance. Goodrich claims that was a wrongful termination in violation of contract because he was not an at-will employee. He asserts that Steve Jobs gave him a job for life. Goodrich claims that in 2005, during a one-on-one meeting with Steve Jobs, Jobs told him that he would always have a job.

Steve Jobs is dead, and there were no witnesses to the conversation, so we must rely entirely on what Goodrich alleges was said during the conversation. Aside from that problem with proof, Goodrich’s claim will fail for the following reasons.

Goodrich began his job at Apple in 1998. He doesn’t claim that he had a job for life at the time he was hired, but rather that the contract was created by the 2005 statement by Jobs. Under basic contract principles, a contract requires mutual consideration. Goodrich was already working at Apple at the time of the statement, so what did Apple receive in return for this promise of life time employment? Thus, under basic contract principles, the claim fails.

There is a concept called promissory estoppel, which provides the contract consideration if the plaintiff can show that the defendant knew he was relying to his detriment. In other words, if Goodrich had gone to Jobs and informed him that he was leaving to take a job at HP for a much higher salary, and Jobs had said, “don’t take the job at HP, stay here where you will always have a job”, then that detrimental reliance in turning down the HP job could provide the consideration. However, as far as I know, Goodrich is making no such claim.

The other fatal flaw in Goodrich’s case is the wording of the alleged statement. If an employee is going to claim that they were given a job for life, then the terms of that “lifetime job contract” have to be sufficiently certain to be enforceable.

Assume that Jobs said to Goodrich, “Wayne, you’re my guy. I can’t imagine running this company without you. You will always have a job at Apple.”

What does that mean? If Goodrich stopped coming to work and sat at home watching Jerry Springer, would he still have a job for life at Apple? No, I’m sure even Goodrich would stipulate that there were circumstances for which he could be fired. He would probably assert that he could only be fired for cause. But what if the cause is that his job is eliminated, or the company is restructured? Or what if Jobs meant that you’ll always have a job while I’m here? And what about the reverse? Was Goodrich required to stay there for life? Did Jobs really mean that Apple was committed to Goodrich for life, but Goodrich was free to shop around his services to see if he could make more money? That seems unfair and unlikely.

The point is, that simple statement by Jobs is just too uncertain to be enforced. There are circumstances where an employer can transmute an at-will employee into an employee who can only be terminated for cause. We have prevailed on a number of cases on that basis. But based on what I know of this case, claiming a job for life just will not fly. It should also be noted that Steve Jobs himself was fired by Apple, although he was eventually brought back.

We’ll watch this case develop and see if I am prescient. Here is a more detailed article about the action against apple.

Judge Upholds Termination Because “Lactation is not Pregnancy”

A judge in Houston has ruled in favor of an employer who allegedly fired a woman who wanted to use the bathroom to breast-pump.

Case facts are never black and white, and there are always complicating factors. Here, there was apparently some issue as to whether the employee abandoned her job, but the ruling of the judge is still hard to fathom.

The EEOC filed a complaint on behalf of Donnicia Venters against debt collection agency Houston Funding. Venters alleged that the company violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Since only women can currently get pregnant, Title VII makes it illegal to discriminate “because of pregnancy, childbirth, or a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth” since by definition those issues would only arise as to women.

However, Title VII doesn’t say anything about lactation, so Judge Lynn Hughes found that the lawsuit was not recognized under Title VII and dismissed the lawsuit. Judge Hughes ruled that “firing someone because of lactation or breast-pumping is not sex discrimination.”

The ruling is, of course, utter nonsense. Lactation occurs because of childbirth, and if a mother cannot pump or nurse, she is at risk of mastitis.

Thankfully, California already has laws in place to protect a woman’s right to breastfeed and/or pump.

For a more detailed discussion of the case, go here, where you can also listen to a recording of what sounds like the employer talking to Venters, explaining how she has no protections (which, if you believe the judge, turned out to be correct), and how generous they are being by showing that she resigned her job (which, of course, denies her unemployment).

An Emotional Distress Claim Should Not Be Undertaken Lightly

Wrongful Termination Attorney Emotional DistressThe case of Mallard v. Progressive Choice Ins. Co. beautifully illustrates a point I discuss with all clients who want to make an emotional distress claim, and provides a good stepping-off point to discuss the reality of damages in a wrongful termination case.

Sometimes I will get a call from a potential client within minutes after they were fired by their employer. They want to sue for wrongful termination and they want to sue NOW!

But what is the employee going to sue for? Union workers and government employees will sometimes sue to get their jobs back, but 99% of the time when someone calls me wanting to sue for wrongful termination, they want to sue for damages. They understand that even if they could sue to get their job back, it would not be a very pleasant environment to work. They want money.

So let’s look at that. Fifteen minutes after an employee has been fired, what damages have they suffered? When I ask the caller that question, they answer, “I was fired!” Yes, but what are your damages? “I was fired!”

Rather than to go on all day in this fashion, I explain. Damages are something you can put a dollar sign in front of. Being fired is not a damage, although obviously it can CAUSE damages. But 15 minutes after a termination, an ethical attorney should explain that there are no real damages at that point.

Let’s do the math. If the employee was making, say, $25 an hour, and they were fired two hours before their shift ended, then the damages at that moment they are calling me are $50, at least in terms of lost wages. But let’s carry it out a little. Let’s assume for our hypothetical that the employee had seen the writing on the wall and had already sent out some feelers for a new job before the axe fell. She makes a few calls, and a week later she starts a new job with the same title that pays $30 per hour with better benefits. What are her damages then?

Well, she went a week without being paid, so she lost $1,000 in wages. If the termination was wrongful, her old employer should at least cut her a check for $1,000 to reimburse her for the lost wages, right? But wait a second. Because of the termination, she will make $10,000 more for the year than if she hadn’t been fired, because now she is making $5 per hour more. Fair’s fair. If you thought her employer should pay her for what she lost as a result of the termination, then it is only fair that she should pay to the employer the money she gained as a result of the termination, right?

I’m speaking tongue in cheek of course, but I want you to think in terms of the real damage to our terminated employee. Last week I discussed all the damages that flow from a wrongful termination, and if you look at that list, assuming our employee did not suffer any setback to her career track, then there are no significant damages a week after termination.

“But what about emotional distress damages?”, the caller asks. That’s a valid question. If your employer wrongfully terminated you, you might have suffered some emotional distress damages, and those are recoverable on a wrongful termination claim. But an ethical attorney then needs to explain what you open yourself up to when you claim emotional distress.

Which leads us to today’s case review. Continue reading

Don’t Bet Your Job on Whether You Know Better

Wrongful TerminationA case out of San Diego beautifully illustrates an issue that I frequently encounter with prospective clients, and provides a cautionary tale.

The fact pattern is so common that I have given it a name — the “‘I Know Better’ Syndrome”, or “Syndrome” for short.  The Syndrome arises when an employee takes a firm stand on some issue, to the point of refusing to do what they are told, believing that they have a better understanding of the law or company policies.

For example, the company policy will be that reimbursements can’t be made out of petty cash without a receipt. The boss tells an employee to reimburse another worker for a company lunch, and the employ refuses because the worker does not have a receipt. The boss writes her up for insubordination, but the employee will have none of that and goes to Human Resources to complain that she was written up when all she did was follow company policy. The next thing she knows, she is called in and terminated because her inflexible adherence to the strict letter of the policies has just become too much of an annoyance.

So it was in the San Diego case.  Here is a summary of the facts, as reported by Sign On San Diego. The Superior Court in San Diego is way behind the electronic curve so I could not review the actual court documents on file.  This summary is based on what was reported on Sign On San Diego and may not be entirely accurate. The point here is not the specific facts but the legal issue they illustrate.

Shari Watson, a Chula Vista council aide, was told to deposit a $2,400 check from Cox Communications, made out to “The City of Chula Vista/International Friendship Games”. This bothered Watson, because Cox had only agreed to a $1,000 sponsorship for the event.  Watson could not reconcile why Cox would be sending a check for $2,400.  Watson asked Deputy Mayor Rudy Ramirez if she could call Cox to see if the check was made out in error, but he told her to go ahead and deposit it and let the finance department work out any problems.

Freeze.  Right there is the moment in time that employees fall prey to the I Know Better Syndrome.  The supervisor has just given clear instructions, but the employee thinks she knows better.  Watson was absolutely, positively, 100% correct – the check was a mistake, and was meant for payment of city permits and not for the event – but that wasn’t really the issue. Ramirez had instructed her to deposit the check and let another department deal with the possible mistake, according to the article. When Watson refused to deposit the check, Ramirez had another employee deposit it, and the accounting snafu was eventually rectified. However, Ramirez fired Watson, allegedly for her “inability to take direction.”

Well that can’t be allowed to stand, right? Continue reading