Tag Archives: At-Will Employment

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.

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