Those who serve in the military have a right not to be disadvantaged in their employment because they leave to serve our country. Last Thursday, a federal district court judge sent this message loud and clear.
Michael Serricchio, an Air Force reservist, was awarded over $1 million dollars because his employer violated the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act.
The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (“USERRA”) is a federal law intended to ensure that persons who serve or have served in the military are:
- not disadvantaged in their civilian careers because of their service;
- promptly reemployed in their civilian jobs upon their return from duty; and
- not discriminated against in employment based on past, present, or future military service.
USERRA covers every employer in the United States no matter how small.
In January of 2009, a Congressional bill called the Servicemembers Access to Justice Act of 2009 (“SAJA”) was introduced by Senator Casey and Senator Kennedy for the purpose of improving some of the deficiencies in USERRA (the original bill was co-sponsored by then Senator Obama in 2008). A statement from Senator Casey’s office illuminated some of the issues:
According to the Department of Defense’s Status of Forces study released in November 2007, among post-9/11 returning Reservists and National Guard, nearly 11,000 were denied prompt reemployment and more than 20,000 lost seniority and thus pay and other benefits. The SAJA would eliminate those problems by closing loopholes to ensure that returning reservists keep their jobs and employment benefits as required under current law
The legislation specifically:
- overrules the 5th Circuit case of Garrett v. Circuit City Stores to ban mandatory arbitration of disputes under USERRA
- requires attorneys’ fee awards to prevailing employees
- enhances damages provisions
- waives sovereign immunity and provides for suits against the state.
The award in the Serricchio case is believed to be the largest ever received under USERRA.
The facts of the case are set out in stories reported in the New York Times.and Hartford Courant . In sum, Michael Serricchio was a financial adviser for Prudential Securities in Stamford, Connecticut. He was called to duty after September 11, 2001 and served two years in active service.
Before he left for active duty, Serricchio had accumulated a portfolio of over 200 client accounts worth more than $20 million dollars which generated over $400,000 in annual revenue. According to the Courant::
Serricchio claimed that his Wachovia colleagues carved up his client list while he was away. When clients called asking for him specifically, Serricchio said they were told he was on vacation or out with an illness.
When he got back from military service, Wachovia delayed three months before presenting Serricchio with a salary offer of $2,000 a month and the opportunity to make cold calls to dormant accounts. Serricchio declined the offer.
Last June, a New Haven jury found that this conduct by Wachovia violated USERRA. On Thursday, Connecticut federal district court Judge Janet Bond Atherton affirmed the verdict and awarded:
- 400,000 for Serricchio’s past economic loss (“backpay”)
- $390,00 in punitive damages.
- Serricchio’s attorney’s fees which are estimated to be in the vicinity of $500,000
The Court also ordered that Wells Fargo (which took over Wachovia) rehire Serricchio at a salary of $12,300 a month starting April 1.
This Serricchio case is a wake-up call to businesses who unlawfully refuse to honor the rights of those who serve to protect our country. It’s a great victory for all involved and for all of the men and women who will be helped because of it.