A recent Federal case in Florida underscores the importance of an employer doing a thorough investigation. In Axel v. Fields Motorcars of Florida, Inc., No. 8:15-cv-893-17JSS (M.D. Fla. Feb. 22, 2017), while the jury found there was no age discrimination by the employer against Michael Fields, the Plaintiff, it awarded $4.5 million against the defendant employer, Motorcars of Florida, Inc., an auto dealer, for the Plaintiff’s claims of disability discrimination.
Over $3 million of this $4.5 jury award was for punitive damages. The rest of the monetary jury award was $680,000 in lost wages/benefits, and $600,000 for his emotional pain and suffering. The claims were brought under the Florida Civil Rights Act.
The Plaintiff Michael Fields was in his 70's when he developed cancer. The cancer spread to other organs and he underwent an experimental treatments. His employer did give him time off for the treatments and when he returned to work, he was able to do his job and was doing it very well. In spite of the fact that he was performing well on the job after he returned from his experimental treatments, his supervisor nevertheless recommended terminating Michael Fields for his alleged violation of company policy. His supervisor presented a bogus reason to the employer to terminate him. His supervisor recommended that he be terminated for his allegedly breaking a company rule ten years prior.
The Vice President and the General Manager of Motorcars of Florida, Inc., claimed that the Plaintiff did break an important company rule by forging a document that provided his son access to auto auctions without his receiving the proper authorization. The Plaintiff did not deny that he had in fact signed the letter, but he claimed that he did sign it but that he previously had been given the authorization to do so by management, so therefore, he committed no harm to anyone nor harm to the company.
Furthermore, not even the employer argued that Field's son had thereafter improperly used it to purchase cars thereby causing harm to anyone. However, the Vice President did not hire any independent investigation service nor do a thorough investigation of Field’s alleged policy breaking, or inquiry into the supervisor's real motive in wanting to get rid of the Plaintiff prior to his termination.
When Fields sued the employer, his theory of the case was that his supervisor was bias against him when he learned that he had to take time off for his disability and was undergoing experimental treatments for it. In the law, a bogus excuse given by the employer for the illegal termination - such as the case was here - that the employer was firing him because Fields had broken a company rule - is known as a “ pretext” for discrimination. Because employers will rarely say they are firing someone for being disabled, or being gay, or being too old, etc., they will offer a bogus reason for the termination, a pretext for the illegal discrimination.
The jury award in Axel v. Fields Motorcars of Florida, Inc., demonstrates the importance of an employer’s conducting thorough investigations prior to terminations in regards to employees who are in a protected class status such as those who are disabled, GLBT, or in racial minorities.
If all of your evaluations by a supervisor were good, and then after you return from disability or your employer learns you are a member of a protected class, your evaluations are suddenly downgraded, it could be a clue to an illegal bias against you. This latter example may occur when there is illegal discrimination in the workplace, and I have successfully represented many such former employees in lawsuits who were terminated.
What You Can Do
If you believe you are being discriminated at work, it is important for you to consult with an experienced employment law attorney. I am an aggressive and compassionate employment law attorney who is experienced in representing private and public employees. If you think that you are being subjected to such unlawful workplace discrimination or retaliation, to discuss your matter, contact Hope A. Lang, Attorney at Law today for a free consultation.
Hope A. Lang, Attorney at Law serves clients throughout New Jersey, including Bergen, Middlesex, Essex, Hudson, Monmouth, Ocean, Union, Camden, Passaic, and Morris Counties with locations in Central, Western and Northern NJ to meet with clients.