Jury Awards Administrative Assistant $850,000 in Age Discrimination Lawsuit

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A jury has awarded a Temple University executive assistant $850,000 in an age discrimination lawsuit alleging that, among other things, she was told by her boss, a Chinese national, that "in China, they put women out to pasture at your age" (Briggs v. Temple University, No. 16-248 (E.D. Pa., July 19, 2018)).

After she was fired, Ruth Briggs sued the Philadelphia-based school, claiming age discrimination and hostile work environment during her tenure as an executive assistant to the chair of the university’s computer and information sciences department. Briggs also said she suffered retaliation when she repeatedly complained to the university’s human resources department. The university, however, said she was fired for performance deficiencies.

A unanimous federal jury awarded Briggs compensatory damages of $350,000 for pain and suffering, back pay loss of $250,000 and $250,000 in liquidated damages.

Read local media report here. 

Tort Reform Is A Lie: Hot Coffee Still Being Used to Mislead

Here's the lie:

The lies used to support corporate efforts to continue to restrict regular people's access to the courthouse are powerful. And, sadly, they work. Routinely, potential clients who are sitting in my office will reference the famous McDonalds "Hot Coffee" case and try to assure me that their case isn't like the Hot Coffee case.  Their case is real. 

Here's the thing, the story everyone knows about the Hot Coffee case is a myth. It's a lie pushed by big business and their tort "reform" groups to poison the minds of potential jurors and make it harder for those who have been legitimately injured to received fair compensation. 

So, What Happened?:

In 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck bought a cup of takeout coffee at a McDonald’s drive-thru in Albuquerque and spilled it on her lap. She sued McDonald’s and a jury awarded her nearly $3 million in punitive damages for the burns she suffered.

Before you hear all the facts, your initial reaction might be "Isn’t coffee supposed to be hot?" or "McDonald’s didn’t pour the coffee on her, she spilled it on herself!" But that would be before you hear all the facts.

Here are the facts:

Mrs. Liebeck was not driving when her coffee spilled, nor was the car she was in moving. She was the passenger in a car that was stopped in the parking lot of the McDonald’s where she bought the coffee. She had the cup between her knees while removing the lid to add cream and sugar when the cup tipped over and spilled the entire contents on her lap.

The coffee was not just “hot.” It was very dangerously hot. McDonald’s policy was to serve it at an extremely hot temperature that could cause serious burns in seconds. Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries were far from minor. She was wearing sweatpants that absorbed the coffee and kept it against her skin. She suffered third-degree burns (the most serious kind) and required skin grafts on her inner thighs and elsewhere. (See the video above for pictures.)

Importantly Mrs. Liebeck’s case was far from an isolated event. McDonald’s had received more than 700 previous reports of injury from its coffee, including reports of third-degree burns, and had paid settlements in some cases.

Mrs. Liebeck offered to settle the case for $20,000 to cover her medical expenses and lost income. But McDonald’s never offered more than $800, so the case went to trial. The jury found Mrs. Liebeck to be partially at fault for her injuries, reducing the compensation for her injuries accordingly.

But the jury’s punitive damages award made headlines — upset by McDonald’s unwillingness to correct a policy despite hundreds of people suffering injuries, they awarded Liebeck the equivalent of two days’ worth of revenue from coffee sales for the restaurant chain. Two days. That wasn’t, however, the end of it. The original punitive damage award was ultimately reduced by more than 80 percent by the judge. And, to avoid what likely would have been years of appeals, Mrs. Liebeck and McDonald’s later reached a confidential settlement for even less than that.

Here is just some of the evidence the jury heard during the trial:  

  • McDonald’s operations manual required the franchisee to hold its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Coffee at that temperature, if spilled, causes third-degree burns in three to seven seconds.
  • The chairman of the department of mechanical engineering and biomechanical engineering at the University of Texas testified that this risk of harm is unacceptable, as did a widely recognized expert on burns, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Burn Care and Rehabilitation, the leading scholarly publication in the specialty.
  • McDonald’s admitted it had known about the risk of serious burns from its scalding hot coffee for more than 10 years. The risk had repeatedly been brought to its attention through numerous other claims and suits.
  • An expert witness for the company testified that the number of burns was insignificant compared to the billions of cups of coffee the company served each year.
  • At least one juror later told the Wall Street Journal she thought the company wasn’t taking the injuries seriously. To the corporate restaurant giant those 700 injury cases caused by hot coffee seemed relatively rare compared to the millions of cups of coffee served. But, the juror noted, “there was a person behind every number and I don’t think the corporation was attaching enough importance to that.”
  • McDonald’s quality assurance manager testified that McDonald’s coffee, at the temperature at which it was poured into Styrofoam cups, was not fit for consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat.
  • McDonald’s admitted at trial that consumers were unaware of the extent of the risk of serious burns from spilled coffee served at McDonald’s then-required temperature.
  • McDonald’s admitted it did not warn customers of the nature and extent of this risk and could offer no explanation as to why it did not.

After the verdict, one of the jurors said over the course of the trial he came to realize the case was about “callous disregard for the safety of the people.” Another juror said “the facts were so overwhelmingly against the company.”

That’s because those jurors were able to hear all the facts — including those presented by McDonald’s — and see the extent of Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries.

But that's not the story that the public has heard. Tort reform advocates lied about the facts of the case and the fake story gained traction. It went viral. So viral that now this story is what is most often cited by jurors and others when explaining why they don't trust lawyers, why they don't like lawsuits, and why they think plaintiffs are just out for a quick buck. 

And it's all a lie.

 

 

If you want to read more, start here.

$51 Million Dollar Verdict Awarded in Age Discrimination Case

A former Lockheed Martin engineer, who sued for age discrimination after being laid off at age 66, was awarded $51.6 million by a jury in a federal court in New Jersey. This may be the highest amount ever awarded to an individual in an age discrimination case, and stands as a stark reminder that age discrimination remains a big — and potentially very expensive — issue for HR.

Robert Braden was a mid-level manager who spent almost 29 years at a Lockheed Martin facility in Moorestown, NJ. He claims that he was a target in a reduction in force plan to replace older workers with younger ones, and that he and other older workers consistently received less pay and lower reviews and raises than younger workers.

In his lawsuit complaint, Braden said that he was the oldest of six engineers in Lockheed's Electronic Systems-Mission Systems and Sensors unit, that his title was project specialist, senior staff, and that he was the only one let go in that round of layoffs. He said that he was given no specific reason for his termination and that his job performance had been "excellent." He also said that supervisors and company executives regularly made remarks about older workers.

The $51.6 award breaks down like this:

  • $50 million for punitive damages under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination,
  • $520,000 for economic loss,
  • $520,000 for willful action against the Age Discrimination and Employment Act (ADEA) and
  • another $520,000 for pain and suffering.

(Note that in Texas, the size of the this verdict would have been greatly reduced by the application of damages caps passed by the Texas legislature to protect companies who commit this type of wrongful conduct.)

Discrimination against older workers remains a significant problem

While the size of the Lockheed verdict is certainly surprising, workplace age discrimination, unfortunately, is not. A 2013 AARP study found that almost two in three workers ages 45 to 74 said they have experienced workplace age discrimination.

And with an aging US population and ongoing economic uncertainty, more people plan to or must stay in the workforce well past the age of 65. As a result, managers and supervisors should take steps to ensure all employees are vigilant and sensitive to behavior and practices that can be grounds for an age discrimination claim.

Can You Trust Your Company's HR Department?

A fellow blogger has a post out this week titled "Who Do You Report Harassment To If the Harasser Is the CEO?".  It is a thoughtful article and it makes the excellent point that HR for every company needs to bake into their policies a method by which an employee can internally report sexual harassment being committed by the CEO or owner of a company without risk of retaliation. I think that is an excellent goal to strive for and I hope that all HR departments set that as a goal.  There is only one problem with the premise of the article. 

The effort will almost certainly fail. 

Michael Corleone: "C'mon Frankie... my father did business with HR, he respected HR."
Frank Pentangeli: "Your father did business with HR, he respected HR... but he never trusted HR!"

 

 

HR is, in my opinion, possibly the most challenging role for any manager to do and do well. It is arguably designed to fail. The problem is obvious: HR serves two masters. On the one hand, HR is designed to serve as a helpful ombudsman to employees. To assist employees who are being mistreated. To conduct thorough investigations and correct inappropriate behavior against employees. On the other hand, HR is required to defend management against accusations of unlawful employment practices. HR is usually directly involved in the termination decisions that lead to EEOC filings. HR is then in charge of or at least heavily involved in drafting the company's defensive statement of position filings, arguing that the company is blameless. Thus, the very department that an employee is supposed to trust with his or her career and feel comfortable making a complaint to is the same department that will be spearheading the fight against the employee when it all goes south. 

What this means in most companies is that, no, you cannot trust HR to help you. While many HR officers have their hearts in the right place when they start working in the field, they can't help but know who is responsible for signing their paychecks. Hint: it's not the employee bringing a complaint against a member of management.  

So, should you bring complaints to HR? Yes, you should. In fact, in many cases you are legally required to do so or you risk waiving any claims you may have against the company for the discrimination or harassment you are reporting. Just don't assume that HR's only role is to help you. Because it isn't. While HR may be trying to assist you they are also assessing corporate risk, documenting your complaint in a way that will assist the company in defending against your complaint, and looking for ways to satisfy the demands of management. 

Here are a couple of quick tips: 

  1. Make all reports in writing. When push comes to shove down the road, HR is liable to either not "remember" you made a complaint or to remember it substantially differently than you do. Putting your report in writing is the only way to prove you made a complaint, when you made it, and to whom the complaint was made.  
  2. You know that written report from number 1, above?  KEEP A COPY. A written complaint does you know good if you send the only copy to HR. It might...you know...get lost. 
  3. Consider going outside the organization to the EEOC. If your complaint involves EEO-based (age, sex, race, religion disability, color) discrimination or harassment then consider making a complaint to the EEOC sooner rather than later. There will be little question that a report to the EEOC is protected activity under the law. This gives you a somewhat higher level of protection from retaliation than if you merely report internally. 
  4.  Consult with an employment lawyer. If you are in a situation in which you feel you need to make a complaint against management then, make no mistake, you job IS at risk. Start looking for a qualified employment attorney who represents employees. Be warned, in many parts of the country there aren't that many who lawyers who specialize in representing employees. So start looking before you need one. And don't expect such a lawyer to visit with you for free. This is not a simple car accident case and you aren't looking for a PI lawyer who can take your case on a contingent fee basis. Employment law is very specialized and contingency fees are generally not available for consulting services. If you find a qualified lawyer to advise you, however, it is money well spent. 

Bottom line: Yes, you should report harassment or discrimination internally to your company's HR department. But that doesn't mean you should blindly trust the HR department. Understand that they serve two masters and protect yourself accordingly.  

File a Charge With the EEOC Immediately Or Risk Losing Your Case

Some prospective clients are surprised to learn that most of wrongful termination or sexual harassment matters than an employment lawyer handles cannot be taken straight to court. This is, unfortunately, true.

Most cases having to do with discrimination or wrongful termination relating to an EEO category (age, race, sex, disability, etc) must go through a required administrative process before a lawsuit can be filed. Even more confusing is the fact that you may have more than one administrative agency to choose from when deciding where to file. Does it matter where you file? Sometimes yes. This administrative process and the choices that must be made early on in your case is one of the best reasons to consider hiring a lawyer earlier rather than later. More on why that is later. Short of that, here are some answers to some of the more basic questions regarding administrative filings:

What Types Of Cases Must Be Filed Administratively?

If your case involves potential claims for discrimination or termination based on an EEO category (age, race, sex, disability, religion, etc) then you probably need to file administratively. Claims for sexual harassment or retaliation for making a complaint or participating in an investigation of an EEO-related matter also must be filed administratively.

When Do I Need to File? Short Answer: IMMEDIATELY.

No really. The limitation periods for these types of claims vary depending on numerous factors but they are all short. In many states you will lose your right to pursue an action if you don’t file a Charge with the EEOC within 180 days of the event or occurrence you are complaining about. If you are a federal worker the deadline can be as little as 45 days. These are hard, fixed deadlines. There is no extending them because you had a good reason for delay. In many states, you only have 180 days to file a charge with the EEOC or lose your right to sue FOREVER, no matter how blatant the discrimination.

Where Do I Need to File

The default place to file your discrimination, sexual harassment or retaliation Charge is with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They have offices in most metropolitan areas. Learn more here: http://eeoc.gov/employees/charge.cfm. You can also file a Charge by contacting them by phone at (800) 669–4000 (be prepared to wait an hour or more). However, depending on where you live, it might be better to file with a state or city agency that has a work-sharing agreement with the EEOC. Contact an employment lawyer near you to help you decide what is the best course of action in your area.

What Is the Process?

Filing a Charge is relatively easy once you arrive at the agency’s offices. You fill out a short form and then meet with an investigator who will complete the Charge documents for your signature. Each field office has its own procedures for appointments or walk-ins so check the website or call ahead for best results. It is always helpful if you bring with you to the meeting any information or papers that will help the investigator understand your case. For example, if you were fired because of your performance, you might bring with you the letter or notice telling you that you were fired and your performance evaluations. You might also bring with you the names of people who know about what happened and information about how to contact them.

Important: Keep in mind that the EEOC (and similar state agencies) can only investigate issues having to do with terminations and/or discrimination relating to EEO issues or retaliation for having made a complaint regarding EEO issues. They don’t investigate overtime or other pay issues and cannot help you if your termination is just because “my boss was mean.” Your issue must be EEO-related.

What Happens Next?

Once you have filed a Charge you may be invited to mediation. This is a topic for another article but the short version is that mediation is a voluntary process where the two sides of the dispute (you and your employer) sit down with an EEOC mediator for free to see if you can work out your differences and reach a pre-suit settlement. It is an excellent free service that the EEOC provides and I highly recommend it for most cases. Keep in mind, however, that you will benefit from having a lawyer with you at a mediation unless your case is so small that you wish to settle it for very little money (typically less than $15,000.00. If your case is worth more than this baseline amount, having a good lawyer will typically enhance the value of your case by more than you will end up paying your lawyer in fees up front or in a contingent fee on the back end.

How Do I Find A Good Lawyer?

This can be a difficult task but it is worth your time to find the right lawyer for your case. Geography plays a big role here. In some parts of the country there will be many qualified lawyers to choose from. In other areas there will be few. To get started, review my article on How to Hire an Employment Lawyer.

EEOC Releases 2014 Statistics

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) today released a comprehensive set of fiscal year 2014 private sector data tables providing detailed breakdowns for the 88,778 charges of workplace discrimination the agency received. The fiscal year ran from Oct. 1, 2013, to Sept. 30, 2014.

The number of charges filed decreased compared with recent fiscal years, due in part to the government shutdown during the reporting period. While charge filings were down overall compared to the previous fiscal year, first quarter charge filings--which included the period of the shutdown--were 3,000 to 5,000 less than the other quarters.

Among the charges the EEOC received, the percentage of charges alleging retaliation reached its highest amount ever: 42.8 percent. The percentage of charges alleging race discrimination, the second most common allegation, has remained steady at approximately 35 percent. In fiscal year 2014, the EEOC obtained $296.1 million in total monetary relief through its enforcement program prior to the filing of litigation.

The number of lawsuits on the merits filed by the EEOC's Office of General Counsel throughout the nation was 133, up slightly from the previous two fiscal years. A lawsuit on the merits involves an allegation of discrimination, compared with procedural lawsuits, which are filed mostly to enforce subpoenas or for preliminary relief. Monetary relief from cases litigated, including settlements, totaled $22.5 million.

"Behind these numbers are individuals who turned to the EEOC because they believe that they have suffered unlawful discrimination," said EEOC Chair Jenny R. Yang. "The EEOC remains committed to meaningful resolution of charges and strategic enforcement to eliminate barriers to equal employment opportunity."

The updated data include the popular tables of Statutes by Issue and Bases by Issue. "Bases" refers to the protected characteristics giving rise to the discrimination, such as sex or age. In contrast "issue" is the discriminatory action, such as discharge or failure to promote.

More specifically, the charge numbers show the following breakdowns by bases alleged in descending order.

  • Retaliation under all statutes: 37,955 (42.8 percent of all charges filed)
  • Race (including racial harassment): 31,073 (35 percent)
  • Sex (including pregnancy and sexual harassment): 26,027 (29.3 percent)
  • Disability: 25,369 (28.6 percent)
  • Age: 20,588 (23.2 percent)
  • National Origin: 9,579 (10.8 percent)
  • Religion: 3,549 (4.0 percent)
  • Color: 2,756 (3.1 percent)
  • Equal Pay Act: 938 (1.1 percent) but note that sex-based wage discrimination can also be charged under Title VII's sex discrimination provision
  • Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act: 333 (0.4 percent)

These percentages add up to more than 100 because some charges allege multiple bases, such as discrimination on the bases of race and color, or sex and retaliation.

In fiscal year 2014, 30 percent of the charges filed with EEOC alleged the issue of harassment on various bases, such as race harassment or harassment on the basis of disability. Preventing harassment through systemic enforcement and targeted outreach is a priority issue for the Commission. The January 14, 2015 Commission meeting focused on Workplace Harassment. The new table for All Harassment Charges includes sexual harassment as well as other forms of harassment. Sexual Harassment still remains as a separate table, joined by new tables showing charges of Race Harassment as well as Charges Alleging Harassment Other than Sexual Harassment.

Discharge continues to be the most common issue for all bases under Title VII, the ADEA and the ADA. Allegations of harassment for all bases were the next most frequently cited issue, with the exception of race. For the basis of race, discriminatory terms and conditions of employment was the second most frequently cited issue (9,332), with harassment being the third (9,023).

The updated tables also include Charges by State. The greatest number of charges were filed in Texas (8,035), followed by Florida (7,528) and California (6,363).