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

IMG_0311.PNG

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. 

Buc-ee’s Loses Texas Retention Agreement Case

IMG_0179.jpg

A year after a trial court ordered that a former employee pay Buc-ee’s close to $100,000 in alleged damages and attorneys fees for breaching an employee “Retention Agreement”, a Texas court of appeals reversed that decision, ordering that Buc-ee’s take nothing on its claims against its former employee and also ordered that it pay for her legal fees as well. (Read my previous coverage of this case here.)

The employee in question, Kelly Rieves, was hired by the store as an assistant manager in Cypress, Texas for total compensation of about $55,000. She was hired as an at-will employee, meaning that the company could fire her for any reason at any time. But Buc-ee’s required her to sign an employment contract that is uncommon in the convenience store industry. It's called a "retention agreement".  

The contract Rieves signed divided her pay into two categories, regular pay and “retention pay." The amount allocated to "retention pay" accounted for approximately one-third of her total compensation. The contract allowed the store to recoup the retention pay should she fail to remain employed for a full 48-month term. The contract also required Rieves to give six months' notice before leaving. This is despite the fact that the company maintained the right to terminate Rieves prior to the end of the period. (The contract may or may not have contained notice provisions in favor of the employee that I am not privy to but it would not be required to have such provisions under Texas law.)

Three years later, Rieves decided to leave her job a year or so before her contract expired. We don't know her reasons but we do know she tried to work it out with the company first but her boss refused to let her out from under the contract. So she quit.

In response, Buc-ee’s sued her for the full amount of the retention pay she earned during her three years with the company -- an amount over $67,000.00. The trial court found against Rieves and awarded the company nearly $100,000.00 in damages and attorney’s fees.

Last week the court of appeals took that verdict back, ordering that Buc-ee’s take nothing on its claims against Rieves and that it pay for her legal fees as well. The court reasoned that the requirement that Rieves pay back such a large sum of money should she leave the company acted as a restraint of free trade and violated Texas’ employment-at-will doctrine. As a result, it could only be valid if it met the requirements of an actual noncompete agreement, which in Texas is controlled by statute. Because this agreement did not meet those requirements, it was not enforceable. 

Download a copy of the opinion.

 Buc-ee’s will now have to decide whether to appeal the matter further.

Halliburton pays nearly $18.3 million in overtime owed to more than 1,000 employees nationwide after US Labor Department investigation

 Employee Rights Under the FLSA

Employee Rights Under the FLSA

In one of the largest recoveries of overtime wages in recent years for the U.S. Department of Labor, oil and gas service provider, Halliburton, has agreed to pay $18,293,557 to 1,016 employees nationwide. The department's Wage and Hour Division investigated Halliburton as part of an ongoing, multi-year compliance initiative in the oil and gas industry in the Southwest and Northeast.

Investigators found Halliburton incorrectly categorized employees in 28 job positions as exempt from overtime. The company did not pay overtime to these salaried employees — working as field service representatives, pipe recovery specialists, drilling tech advisors, perforating specialists and reliability tech specialists — when they worked more than 40 hours in a workweek, in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The company also failed to keep accurate records of hours worked by these employees.

Simply paying an employee a salary does not necessarily mean the employee is not eligible for overtime. The FLSA provides an exemption from both minimum wage and overtime pay requirements for individuals employed in bona fide executive, administrative, professional and outside sales positions, as well as certain computer employees. To qualify for exemption, employees generally must meet certain tests regarding their job duties and be paid on a salary basis at not less than $455 per week. Job titles do not determine exempt status. In order for an exemption to apply, an employee's specific job duties and salary must meet all the requirements of the department's regulations.

The FLSA requires that covered, non-exempt employees be paid at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour for all hours worked, plus time and one-half their regular rates, including commissions, bonuses and incentive pay, for hours worked beyond 40 per week. Employers must maintain accurate time and payroll records.

Supreme Court Rules 6-2 Against Tyson -- Workers Win Millions in Back Pay

 Supreme Court Rules For Workers in Pay Dispute

Supreme Court Rules For Workers in Pay Dispute

In a victory for American workers, the Supreme Court last week upheld a $5.8 million judgment against Tyson Foods in a pay dispute with more than 3,000 workers at a pork-processing plant in Iowa. You can read the opinion in Tyson Foods v. Bouaphakeo here.

The justices voted 6-2 on to reject new limits Tyson asked them to impose on the ability of workers to band together to challenge pay and workplace issues. The case revolved around the question of whether the workers could bring a class action case. Tyson argued that since each employee spent a different amount of time putting an gear and removing it, they shouldn't be able to sue as a group using "representative evidence" to prove up their case. The court rejected that argument.

“In many cases,” according to the Court majority opinion, “a representative sample is ‘the only practicable means to collect and present relevant data'” to prove that the company being sued was legally at fault.   The opinion went on to provide some guidance to when such evidence would be allowed in such cases.

In this case, the Court was more content to allow such evidence because Tyson Foods had not obeyed its legal duty to keep records on how much each worker had worked as overtime.  Without such records, the employees had to marshal other evidence, and the sample was the best proof available to them.

The case is notable because it represents at least a small opening in the legal wall against group actions that the Supreme Court has been steadily building over the last several years.

Read more:

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.

Jury awards $769,000 Against Washington University in Disability Discrimination Case

A St. Louis woman has won a $769,000 verdict against Washington University in a trial alleging the school refused to accommodate her disability and then fired her.

The plaintiff, age 55, worked as a researcher at the university's medical school from 1996 to 2012 and had herniated disks, according to her lawsuit. She claimed her back problems caused her extreme pain in certain positions "including but not limited to cell culture and bench work" and that the university and her supervisor discriminated against her by not accommodating her condition.

Her lawyer said the university in November 2012 fired her from her cancer research position, telling her the school had lost funding for her projects. Her lawsuit said her firing was in retaliation for her request that she not be required to sit and bend over for excessive periods of time.

After a five-day trial in St. Louis Circuit Court, the jury Friday awarded Lin $269,000 in actual damages and $500,000 in punitive damages.

It should be noted that St. Louis is seen by many as being one of the most plaintiff-friendly venues in the country so your mileage may vary. 

Read the story here.