Lee County Officials Propose Settlement for Jail Workers

Commissioners in Lee County, Florida, have proposed a settlement for the seven plaintiffs that had sued the government body for wrongful termination. The workers, who were employed at the county jail, said they were fired because they assisted with an internal investigation at the facility. Their department had been targeted because of alleged misconduct. The group may receive a total settlement of about $500,000.

The county has not yet admitted liability in the case; administrators contend that the employees were not fired because of their participation in the investigation. Rather, the workers were terminated from their jobs because of reported racist and sexist comments that they made while at work. The workers’ jobs were later reinstated, according to local media reports.

County administrators recommended the settlement during a hearing in early March. Most of the settlement money would reportedly go to attorneys’ fees, which add up to about $300,000. If the commissioners choose not to settle with the plaintiffs, the case will go to trial. If that happens, the plaintiffs will accrue a significant amount in legal fees to argue their case, which could force the county to pay up to $1 million if even one person wins the case.

The debate in this case continues to rage. Commissioners could choose not to pay the settlement amount, which would result in a trial. Alternatively, the plaintiffs could reject the settlement, which would also prompt a trial. The decision to accept the money could hinge heavily on the fact that the settlement only provides compensatory damages, not punitive damages for emotional effects of the wrongful termination.

In this case, the county might be best-served to offer the settlement to the plaintiffs, simply to avoid the risks associated with jury trial. It is conceivable that the plaintiffs will have to spend a significant amount of money to argue their case, and the county could be required to pay even more money as a result. Settlements allow defendants to avoid the lengthy, complicated trial process while satisfying plaintiffs’ complaints.

Source: Naples News, “Commissioners agree to nearly $500,000 settlement in whistleblower lawsuit,” Maryanne Batlle, March 5, 2013

Employee wins settlement after time card woes

A Florida worker at a sports facility won a large settlement from a wrongful termination suit this month. The man, who served as a card dealer in the facility’s poker room, had been fired after he incorrectly recorded his hours worked, even though his employer did not permit him access to the official time clock. The man has recovered $33,700 in damages in connection with the wrongful termination case, which could increase over time.

The federal lawsuit was filed in the summer of 2011 after the man said he was wrongfully fired. The man said that his swipe badge, used to clock in and out of work, broke several months before that time. His employer and supervisors refused to issue him a new badge, so he began to record his hours manually on a sheet next to the time clock. His supervisors and the company’s payroll clerk continued to harass him about putting his hours in the computerized system, even though he was unable to do so without the appropriate equipment.

In February 2011, company administrators told the man they would stop paying him if he did not log his time electronically. The man told his employers that it was illegal to refuse to pay a worker, and he would take legal action if the company did not provide him with the earned money. Shortly thereafter, the man was fired.

Courtroom documents allege that the man’s termination was directly caused by his complaints to management about not getting paid. Representatives for the company maintain that they never violated the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act, yet the employer was also accused under Florida’s whistleblower protection law, legislation that protects people who report wrongdoing on the job.

In this case, the man recovered damages for lost wages. He may also have obtained financial compensation for emotional distress, which almost certainly occurred after the man lost his job. When dealing with a sluggish economy, losing employment is difficult — especially if a person is unfairly terminated. This is why it’s important for employees to understand their rights under state and federal law.

Source: Ocala Star-Banner, “Card room worker wins $33,700 verdict against Second Chance Jai-Alai,” Vishal Persaud, Feb. 14, 2013

Banker claims wrongful termination for Ponzi revelations

A Miami whistleblower said he was fired from his prestigious banking position after reporting suspicious activity related to a Ponzi scheme. The man has filed a wrongful termination case against the financier in connection with the allegations, which revolve around money scams initiated by now-famous Scott Rothstein.

The employee, a high-level regulations expert, claims that he was fired after reporting the investor’s misdeeds. His employer, Gibraltar Private Bank, reportedly told him that their workers did not have to abide by federal banking regulations because of their high-level clients. He had reported suspicions related to Rothstein’s accounts as early as 2008, according to the suit, but bank leaders told him to relax regulatory requirements for the investor, saying he was one of the business’s best clients.

When the man refused to ignore the problems and insisted that Rothstein’s accounts be closed, bank managers fired him.

Approximately one year after the man lost his job, Rothstein was apprehended after fleeing to Morocco. Authorities said he had masterminded a giant fraud scheme that ultimately fleeced investors of more than $1 billion. He has since been sentenced to 50 years’ time in a federal prison, according to reports.

Not only did the bank leaders fire the man bringing the suit, but he alleged that they also prevented him from getting other work because they defamed his character. The man’s former supervisors claimed that he was physically violent to other employees, saying that other workers refused to stay alone with the man after hours. The bank also falsely alleged that they were required to hire armed guards after the man was fired because they were afraid he would return with a gun.

The man is seeking compensation for a variety of wrongs, including retaliation, defamation, whistleblower violations and breach of employment agreements. It is not clear how much money the man is seeking in connection with the suit. He is not looking to be reinstated to his former position because the bank has since become defunct.

Source: Courthouse News Service, “Exec claims bank fired him for reporting Rothstein’s Ponzi scam,” Iulia Filip, Nov. 8, 2012

Whistleblower fired for complaining about workplace rodents

A federal judge in a southern Florida court ruled last week that a Florida company illegally retaliated against one if its employees by firing him after he complained about an infestation of rodents at a company facility in Stuart, Florida. The lawsuit to vindicate employee rights was filed by the U.S. Department of Labor.

The man worked for a canvas products manufacturing company called Aquatech Technologies, which is owned by LOTO Services, LLC. The court found that the firing violated the employee’s rights against retaliation for complaining about workplace safety or health under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The judge awarded the employee $34,186, including $27,072 in lost back wages, $6,700 in expenses, and $414 in interest.

When the employee first complained about rodent droppings in a company office, traps were deployed, but the infestation remained. When the employee repeated his complaint, the employer denied that the problem existed. As a result, the employee notified the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) about the threat to workplace health and safety. When OSHA notified the company about the complaint, the employee was fired.

OSHA enforces federal laws protecting employees who report workplace health and safety rules and other federal regulations. Employers have a mandatory legal duty to provide a safe and healthy workplace consistent with OSHA standards. When these standards are violated or an employee is fired or disciplined for reporting violations, OSHA investigates and takes necessary enforcement actions.

In this case, OSHA’s investigation determined that the employee’s firing was retaliatory and would not have happened absent the employee’s reporting of the workplace rodent problem. It then filed the lawsuit on behalf of the ex-employee.

Source: OSHA Regional News Release, “US Department of Labor wins lawsuit against Aquatech Technologies owners for firing whistleblower who complained about rodents at Stuart, Fla., plant Judge finds canvas manufacturer violated OSH Act by retaliating against employee,” Oct. 10, 2012.

Nuclear power plant worker claims wrongful termination

A 53-year-old former worker at a St. Lucie, Florida, nuclear power plant has filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against Florida Power & Light Company, which operates the facility. He claims that he took action to protect the safety of the plant and public but was fired in retaliation for that action. In his lawsuit, he also asserts claims for defamation (libel), as well as fraud and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The incident at issue occurred on Nov. 21, 2009. On that date, he says, he could see that the nuclear power plant’s Unit 2 nuclear reactor had a leak in one of its valves. Because of this, in his position as operations manager, he refused to start that unit up, allegedly costing the company $6 million to shut down the reactor to address the safety issue from coolant leaking from the valve.

He says that he then reported the problem to a company vice president who acted in a shocking fashion by ordering him to immediately start the nuclear reactor back up without addressing the safety issue. He refused to obey this order, according to the complaint, and following that, supervisory personnel targeted him for retaliation. Among other actions, they allegedly wrote performance reviews of him which were purposefully lower than justified, in order to target him for elimination. Ultimately, he was fired, although that did not happen until June 25 of 2012.

The employer has denied the fired worker’s claims, and asserts that both unit 1 and unit 2 at the nuclear plant were running at 100 percent of anticipated power on the date in question. It also claims that it would never do anything that could compromise the safety of the facility. The lawsuit asks for money damages of $15,000.

Source: The Palm Beach HostFormer Florida Power & Light Co. nuclear plant employee files lawsuit,” Susan Salisbury, Sept. 19, 2012

Port Authority CEO targeted by termination vote

Canaveral Port Authority Chief Executive Officer Stan Payne narrowly survived an effort by two port commissioners to terminate his contract. The CEO was accused of trying to unlawfully bill the port for personal tax planning. Concerns were also raised about his management of the port. The port commissioners took a vote, and the outcome was 3-2 against terminating Payne.

In Florida, terminated employees may have a claim for wrongful discharge or termination if their employment contract prohibits the employer from discharging employees without cause.

In this case, the CEO had an employment contract. However, even employment contracts must comply within the scope of applicable state and federal laws. Here, because the allegation against the CEO involved a cause-based allegation (and perhaps even embezzlement), the terms of his employment contract probably offered few protections against such a charge.

Membership in unions subject to collective bargaining agreements with an employer is another way Florida professionals may obtain workplace protections against wrongful termination. In such event, the terms of the CBA govern the employment relationship, creating job protections not available to traditional at-will employees. Typically, collective bargaining agreements specify how employment disputes are to be resolved, which in many cases is by arbitration.

Yet even at-will employees, who can be terminated with or without case, may have a legal claim when their dismissal was for discriminatory reasons, in retaliation, or because of other improper motives. Either way, being terminated from your job can damage your reputation and self-esteem, have an effect on future employment opportunities, and cause a loss of income. At a time like that, you need an attorney to stand up for you and fight for your rights and interests.

Source: Florida Today, “Port CEO survives termination vote,” Dave Berman, July 3, 2012