Friday, February 24, 2012

Former Hillsborough County Administrator Wins Employment Contract Dispute

Patricia Bean served as the County Administrator for Hillsborough County, Florida.  In that capacity she reported to the County Commissioners.   A few years back she gave raises to herself and the County Attorney without approval of the County Commissioners.  This resulted in both of their dismissals.  The circumstances surrounding their dismissals was on the front pages of the local newspapers for a couple of years (and I admit I did not catch all of the stories). Unfortunately, her decision making resulted in local and state investigations.

The most recent battle involved her seeking a severance package in connection with the dismissal.  Ms. Bean had a very nice employment contract drafted that allowed her to claim a severance even if she was terminated.  Usually, in executive contracts an executive will not receive severance if they are terminated “for cause.”  In Ms. Bean’s contract, cause would require a finding of criminal wrongdoing. 

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigated Ms. Bean’s actions.   Although Ms. Bean’s reputation in this County will always be associated with unethical behavior, the FDLE concluded that there was no criminal wrongdoing.

Ms. Bean wanted to get paid.  Recognizing the notoriety of the case, the County Commissioners said no way will we give you a severance.  An attempt to negotiate followed. After the negotiations broke down, Ms. Bean sued.

This was a difficult call for the County Commissioners.  Given the language of the contract, it seemed that they had an uphill battle.  Still, they felt that it was necessary to go forward with the suit.

A trial was held before Judge Barton on December 29.   Yes, the judge required the attorneys to appear him during the week between Christmas and New Years.  Having considered the evidence, the judge ruled in Ms. Bean’s favor.

One person noted that “she paid the judge off.”  While the public may not be happy with the result, that did not happen.  This case was won when the parties signed her contract.  Of course, when these contracts are drafted there are a lot of pleasantries and the executive is excited about taking on the new position and moving forward.  Years ago, no one expected that the County Commissioners would have to fire their chief executive.  This case shows that one of the most important things to review in these agreements is what happens if the parties have to go there separate ways.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Court Finds That Breastfeeding is not Related to Pregnancy

            In EEOC v. Houston Funding II, LTD, a Texas court considered whether an employer discriminated against a woman who asked to pump breast milk during breaks at work.  Ruling in favor of the employer, the district court concluded that the employee’s claims did not rise to the level of discrimination.

            Donnicia Venters worked for Houston Funding for approximately two years.  She took a leave of absence to give birth and a few days after delivery told the company VP that she was uncertain as to when she would return.  After this conversation, while Venters maintained contact with her coworkers, she did not make further contact with the VP.  About a month and a half later, the VP held a meeting with several employees and they discussed Venters’ return date.  Concluding that Venters did not intend to return, Houston Funding decided to terminate her employment. 

            A few days later, Venters doctor released her to return to work.  When Venters reached the VP, she told him that she was ready to return and asked if she could use a back room during breaks to pump milk for her baby.  The VP told Venters that she had been fired because the company believed that she abandoned her job.

            The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit on Venters’ behalf claiming that the company discriminated against her in connection with her pregnancy.  The pregnancy discrimination allegations focused on Venters’ need to pump breast milk at work.

            The Texas judge entered summary judgment in favor of Houston Funding.  Summary judgment is a procedure that allows a judge to enter judgment in favor of one party without trial if the court concludes that the evidence to proceed to trial is lacking.  In reaching its conclusion, the court noted that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act did not cover Venters’ claims.  The court reasoned that lactation is not pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition.  That is right…the court concluded lactation is not“a related medical condition” [to pregnancy].  The court further noted that after Venters gave birth, her pregnancy related conditions ended.

            This case generated some publicity over the last week, with no less than 275 newspaper articles or commentaries. While I admit to not reading all of the articles, I think it would be difficult to find an opinion piece in which the writer agreed with the judge.  It is worth noting, that about 3-4 other courts reached the same result when the issue was presented. 

            Also, there has been a change in the law that protects some women who need to pump milk while at work.  In 2008, Congress amended the Fair Labor Standards Act to require employers to provide time for women to pump for up to 12 months following the birth of the child.  This new law, however, applies only to non-exempt employees and there are exceptions.

Additionally, I recommend the following articles/blogs for further thoughts on this subject:   Judge:Legally, breastfeeding not related to pregnancy by the Suzanne Lucas and LactationIs Not Caused By Pregnancy or Childbirth, Says Judge by Donna Ballman. 

Do you think the Texas Judge made the right decision?

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Florida Court Rules Claims of Disabled Employee with Bipolar Disorder May Proceed to Trial

Michael Muzyka worked for Regions Bank as a “Personal Banker.”  During his employment at Regions, Muzyka received performance bonuses.  Muzyka also was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  His condition caused him to be confused, made it difficult for him to concentrate and experienced difficulty sleeping.

Muzyka’s psychologist provided a list of accommodations to help alleviate the stress associated with Muzyka’s position.  These accommodations included flexibility with deadlines, reducing his workload, and recognizing that despite his normal high levels of performance he could have periods of “average performance.”  Regions rejected Muzyka’s requests for accommodations.

During his tenure at Regions, Muzyka had different supervisors.  Muzyka’s last supervisor indicated that he had performance problems and placed Muzyka on a performance improvement plan.  Regions then terminated Muzyka’s employment.

Muzyka brought a lawsuit against Regions under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Florida Civil Rights Act (“FCRA”).  The ADA is a civil rights law that, among other things, protects employees from discrimination based on their disability.  To prove his case, Muzyka had to show (1) that he is disabled; (2) that he was a qualified individual with a disability; and (3) he was subjected to unlawful discrimination because of his disability.

Regions sought to have the Court dispose of the case by filing a motion for summary judgment.  In many civil cases, especially employment cases, summary judgment is critical. When an employer moves for summary judgment, it is telling the judge that on the plaintiff’s best day, his evidence is insufficient to present to the jury.  If the employer wins on summary judgment, the case is over and there will be no trial.  If the employee is able to prevail on summary judgment, he/she gains leverage over the employer.  At this point, the employee’s attorney is in a position to demand a nice settlement for his client.

In this case, Regions claimed that Muzyka was not qualified for the position because of poor performance.  Judge Virginia Covington noted that Muzyka presented evidence that he met his goals and received bonus payments.  Therefore, she denied Regions motion for summary judgment concluding that there were “genuine issue of material fact concerning whether Muzyka was able to perform the essential functions of his job.”

It looks like Regions will have to open up the check book right about now.  Muzyka was terminated a little bit more than two years ago, so he will be looking at that amount in back pay.  Depending on his ability to obtain employment elsewhere, Regions could also be responsible for front pay.   Additionally, the ADA and FCRA provides monetary damages for emotional pain and suffering.  Muzyka suffered from a mental condition that no doubt was exacerbated by his treatment by his supervisor.   Regions probably would not want to try this case because on top of all that, Muzyka was fired in December, right before the holidays.  Unless all your “i’s’” are dotted and “t’s” crossed, you would not want to fire someone before the holidays.  As a side note, Regions fired Muzyka after he complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, giving him a meritorious retaliation claim.