Employee Rights Short Takes: Race Discrimination, 5.8 Milllion Dollar Verdict, Breach of Contract Damages And More

Here are a few short takes about some employment cases worth noting this month:

EEOC Files Lawsuit Against Kaplan Higher Education Corp. Claiming Race Discrimination

The EEOC announced last week that it filed a class action race discrimination case against Kaplan Higher Education Corp. The suit alleges that since at least 2008, Kaplan rejected applicants based on their credit history and that this practice has an unlawful discriminatory impact because of race. The EEOC further claims that the practice is neither job-related nor justified by business necessity and therefore violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

These kinds of discrimination lawsuits are known as “disparate impact” cases and are often the legal foundation upon which class action discrimination cases are premised. The claim arises when an employer’s practice or policy, though neutral on its face, has a disparate impact on a group which is protected under one or more of  the civil rights statutes. For more about disparate impact cases, see here.

There has been much discussion about the use of credit history as a prerequisite for hiring and its disparate impact on minorities though we haven’t seen many lawsuits challenging the practice.

It will be interesting to follow this litigation and see how Kaplan justifies its policy to check credit history as a job related business necessity. The outcome of this litigation could have a significant impact on future higher practices nationwide. For more about the case, read the NY Times article here.

El Paso Employee Wins 5.8 Million Dollar Discrimination Verdict

An El Paso, Texas jury awarded Mark Duncan, a white benefits supervisor, 5.8 million dollars in a discrimination case against his former employer, El Paso Electric.

According to the El Paso Times, Duncan worked for El Paso Electric for six years and had a good employment history with no record of discipline. He was fired in December of 2007 after his life was threatened during an altercation with a company human resources manager.

 Even though Duncan was cleared of any wrongdoing the company fired him along with the human resource manager.

Duncan claimed he was fired because the company feared a lawsuit from the Hispanic human resource manager and that it got rid of him ("the white guy") to create a defense.

The jury agreed with Duncan and awarded him $129,913 in past lost wages; $699,196 in future lost earnings; $5000 in compensatory damages; and 5 million in punitive damages. El Paso Electric plans to file motions to set aside and reduce the verdict according to newspaper reports.

It certainly looks like whoever made the decision to fire Duncan either forgot or didn’t know that white employees can be victims of race discrimination too.

Two Decisions Worth Noting

In Helpin v.Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania addressed an issue of damages which can be very helpful to other employees down the road.

Mark Helpin, a dentist and professor, won a lawsuit for breach of contract against the University of Pennsylvania and an award of over four million dollars.

Helpin claimed that he was constructively discharged without “just cause” in violation of his contract and that Penn had improperly failed to continue to pay him 50% of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia dental clinic profits to which he was entitled. In a great discussion of future earnings, lost business profits, and the propriety of the “total offset approach” to the calculation of those damages, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the award.

Under the total offset approach, it is assumed that the effect of the future inflation rate will completely offset the interest rate, thereby eliminating the need to discount an award to present value. It has been adopted by some, but not most courts, but I expect so see more of its application in opinions to come.

For anyone involved in a case with a large future damages component, this opinion is both interesting and important and one worth sharing with any expert economists prior to his or her testimony.

In Quinlan v. Curtisss-Wright Corp. the New Jersey Supreme Court issued an extremely important and helpful decision which addresses the situation in which an employee takes company documents which bolster his or her  discrimination claim.

Joyce Quinlan was the Executive Director of Human Resources for Curtiss-Wright. She filed a lawsuit claiming that she was passed over for a promotion because of gender discrimination.

Quinlan copied files -- over 1800 documents -- which supported her claim and gave them to her lawyers.

The company found out during discovery in her pending case  that she copied the documents and and fired her (although it did not fire her right away). It claimed that she stole company property in violation of the company's code of conduct and therefore the discharge was justified.

Quinlian amended her lawsuit to add a retaliation claim. The case was tried and the jury awarded her more that 5.4 million dollars in compensatory damages and over 4.5 million dollars in punitive damages.

The case went to New Jersey Supreme Court which ruled in her favor this month. It upheld the trial court’s determination that Quinlan’s copying and retaining the company’s documents was not “protected conduct” and affirmed the jury’s finding that her firing was retaliatory.

In line with several federal court decisions, it adopted a “flexible totality of the circumstances approach” which sets forth seven factors to be considered in determining whether an employee is permitted to take and use documents belonging to his or her employer.

While this is a very good decision for employees, those who feel their employment rights may have been violated still need to be very cautious about taking company documents in violation of a company policy, even if the documents bolster their claims.  The law is tricky and changing, and it's  best to seek counsel and get advice before it’s too late.

Both of these cases represent significant victories for the the plaintiffs and their lawyers.

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Court Upholds $1.9 Million Dollar Verdict In Gender Discrimination Case Against Wal-Mart

Female Pharmacist Wins Appeal Including Punitive Damages and Huge Front Pay Award

It’s one thing to prove discrimination. It’s an altogether different thing to prove damages which occurred as a result of it.

In the recently published gender discrimination case of Haddad v Wal-Mart Stores Inc,*, the  Supreme Court Court ("SJC") of Massachusetts affirmed a jury verdict which included $733,000 for 19 years of front pay (future economic loss) and $1 million dollars in punitive damages – and that’s big news.

What Happened In The Case

Cynthia Haddad worked as a pharmacist at Wal-Mart for ten years (seven of those in the Pittsfield, Massachusetts store) mostly as a staff pharmacist..Throughout her time at Wal-Mart, she received excellent evaluations.  

Towards the end of her employment, Haddad accepted the position of pharmacy manager.

During that time, she received less pay than any male pharmacy manager which she consistently complained about.

On April 14th, 2004, Haddad was questioned by three Wal-Mart managers about abut two fraudulent prescriptions.

One of the prescriptions was written in 2002 while Haddad was on duty, and another was written in 2004 while a male pharmacist was on duty.

Haddad told the managers that she did not know anything about the fraudulent prescriptions.

She did admit that the 2002 fraudulent prescription could have been written when she briefly left the pharmacy area to buy a soda at a nearby counter, or when she was in the restroom, eating lunch, or talking to customers.

Haddad’s employment was terminated that same day.

She was told that the reason for her termination was based on her statement during the interview that she failed to secure the pharmacy and left Baran (the technician) unattended in the pharmacy area. Baran, who admitted that she falsified the prescription,was also terminated.

The other pharmacist involved -- Richard Blackbird -- was on duty the day the fraudulent 2004 prescription was written. That prescription contained his initials.

In a clear case of unequal treatment, neither Blackbird, nor any other pharmacist was questioned about or disciplined for the 2004 fraudulent prescription.

In stark contract to the treatment Haddad received,  Blackbird was appointed to be pharmacy manager at the time of Haddad's departure.

In addition, Blackbird testified that he commonly left the pharmacy area unsecured to talk to a customer, go the restroom, or get a snack – and that he was unaware of any policy prohibiting this practice.

Haddad filed a lawsuit alleging unequal compensation and termination of employment in violation of Massachusetts laws against discrimination. ( M.G.L. c. 151B, s.4) The complaint also stated a claim for defamation.

The jury found in Haddad’s favor and awarded $922,774 in compensatory damages which included:

  • $17,700 in special damages
  • $125,000 for emotional distress
  • $95,000 in back pay
  • $733,000 in front pay

The jury also awarded $1 million dollars in punitive damages.

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Breach of Employment Contract Makes for Huge Win

Technology Company Hit With Billion Dollar Award

There isn't anything particularly interesting or novel about  Paul Chester's case as far as the law goes. It looks like a straightforward breach of contract case.

What  made me gasp when I read about the case was the size of the award: $4.1 billion !!!!! It's both amazing and unheard of. It's just  SO big.  


The Case

Here's what happened in the case according to the press release from Chester's lawyers.

Paul Thomas Chester was hired by iFreedom Communications, a provider of VoIP and WiFi technology, as its Chief Marketing officer in June of 2004.

The company promised Chester commissions and overrides on gross revenues, as well as the right to receive company stock and other compensation commensurate with Chester's experience in building marketing organizations.

When the time came to pay, iFreedom refused so Chester filed suit. The defendants moved to compel arbitration based on a provision in the employment contract which provided for arbitration in the event of a dispute.

Chester worked for iFreedom until the end of September, 2005 for a total of 15 and a 1/2 months of employment.


The Award

The arbitrator, a retired judge, heard the case and found:

  • the defendants obtained Chester's services by means of false pretenses and fraud
  • Chester was entitled to unpaid salary, commissions, travel expenses, compensation for unissued company stock and unreturned intellectual property
  • the defendants were liable for statutory penalties, interest, attorney's fees, and punitive damages equal to three times the compensatory award

The total was 4.1 billion dollars.

The Los Angeles County Superior Court confirmed the award about ten days ago against iFreedom Communications International Holdings Limited, and it's founder, Timothy Ringgenberg and entered judgment against them.

Here's the breakdown from the court if you you want to look at it and copies of the opinions and awards. Thanks to the Dennis Westlind at World of Work for bringing it to us and for answering this question -- how did this guy get all of this money?

The employment agreement guaranteed him a salary of $12,000 a month plus commissions of 5 percent of gross sales; if he was fired without cause, he would continue to receive commissions. iFreedom also was supposed to provide Chester with 1.1 million shares of common stock upon hiring and another 600,000 shares if he met certain sales targets . Apparently, iFreedom did really, really well. Sales, stock and interest added up, and in a big way.

That's how it happened. The company was earning tons of money, much of it due to Chester -- and it refused to pay him what he was clearly entitled to receive. They also lied to him and stole from him.  It's pretty simple stuff  with very large numbers.

(For more about the case, you may  also want took at  Phillip Loree's article. He makes the point that the Arbitration Fairness Act of 2009, if passed, would render pre-dispute agreements which require arbitration of employment disputes --such as Mr. Chester’s dispute with iFreedom -- unenforceable. It's a good point, but  I have no reason to believe that the outcome in this case would have been any different.)


Lessons To Be Learned

So what can we say about this case?  What lessons can we learn? How about this:

  • Chester was smart to have a really good employment contract
  • iFreedom failed to fulfill its promises when it terminated Chester without cause which entitled Chester to the compensation promised in the contract
  • iFreedom engaged in "a pattern of  despicable conduct" regarding Chester, including fraud and conversion, according to the arbitrator
  • Despicable conduct can result in punitive damages -- whether it's awarded by a judge, jury or arbitrator  
  • Successful companies can do really stupid things

It's not rocket science. It's just the way it is.

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Third Circuit Sends Wake Up Call to Employers About Discriminatory Hiring Practices

In the spirit of National Equal Pay Day on Tuesday, I wanted to share the important gender discrimination case of Donlin v. Phillips Lighting North America Corp. decided by the Third Circuit last week.

Here's what happened in the case.

Colleen Donlin was hired by Phillips as a temporary warehouse employee at its Mountaintop, Pennsylvania distributions center. Her job was to help prepare orders for shipment.

Like other temporary workers, Donlin applied for a permanent position. She was not hired and her eight month temporary assignment ended.

Donlin got two other jobs after she left Philips. At the first job, Donlin earned  $14.70 an hour, but it was a 32-mile commute.

She left that job and found a job closer to home at which she made $13.00 an an hour. Had she been hired by Philips, she would have earned $14.67 an hour as a base salary

Donlin learned that Phillips hired several men for the position she had applied for after it refused to hire her.  She filed a Title VII lawsuit for gender discrimination,  won the trial and was awarded damages.

In discrimination cases, the compensation which can be awarded by a judge or jury  is designed to make victims whole and put them in the position they would have been in had they not been discriminated against.

A winning employee can recover "back pay" and "front pay."

  • Back pay represents losses from the the time of the discrimination up to the time of trial. 
  • Front pay represents the losses that the victim will experience in the future if he or she does not find a comparable position.

Based on the premise that Donlin would have worked for another 25 years, an advisory jury awarded Donlin:

  • $63,050 in back pay
  • 395,795 in front pay
  • for a total of $458,845

The award was based on the difference in pay and benefits between the $13.00 hour job she was holding at the time of trial and the $14.67 hour job she would have had at Phillips had she not been discriminated against when Phillips refused to hire her.

The judge modified the front-pay award by reducing it to account for 10 years of damages instead of 25, finding that a 25 year period was too speculative -- so the total award was $164,850.

Phillips appealed and the decision came out last week. The issues decided are very important for both victims of discrimination and their lawyers. 

Here are the highlights:

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