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Jury Awards Employee Half a Million Dollars for FMLA Violation

Jason Bissonnette began working for Highland Park Market, Inc., a Connecticut grocery chain, back in 1999 as a deli clerk.  While working, he attended classes in computer technology and once he graduated was moved into a position in the IT department.  In fact, he was the entire IT department and was responsible for maintaining all of the computer equipment for the offices and each of the five stores throughout Connecticut.

While managing the IT ‘department’ the company was apparently satisfied with Bissonnette’s performance as he received positive performance evaluations and raises throughout his career there.

According to documents filed with the court, part of Bissonnette’s job required heavy lifting, as he was responsible for replacing and maintaining computer terminals as well as servers.

Sometime in 2007, Bissonnette suffered a back injury, but continued working without taking time off until June of 2009, when the pain became worse and it was recommended that he undergo spinal fusion surgery.

Mr. Bissonnette informed the company that he would need time off for the surgery in January of 2009, but it took them over 5 months to respond.  When they finally did acknowledge his request it was in the form of an objection by the manager of the Human Resources Department, who told Bissonette that they did not believe that his injury was work related and that he should switch his claim from a worker’s compensation claim to one under his own personal health insurance.

He declined to change his claim and subsequently took an unpaid leave under the Family Medical Leave Act after filing a worker’s compensation claim.

He was out of the office until late September when he returned to work on a part time basis, as that was recommended by his physician.  The company refused several of his light duty requests, denying any type of accommodation.

While Bissonnette was out over the summer, the company hired an IT firm to handle his duties.

When he returned, he worked for approximately 15 days before Highland Park fired him, listing “Lack of Work” as the reason. They did offer him a severance package if he would promise not to sue.  He declined and did.

Highland Park gave several conflicting reasons for the termination, but finally stated that they were not doing well financially and that it was a reasonably sound business decision to fire Bissonnette and hire the IT firm.

Bissonnette pointed out at trial, however that the contract with the IT firm actually cost the company more money than his salary, proving that argument disingenuous.  The company’s owner admitted on cross examination that Bissonnette would not have been fired had he never gone out on medical leave.

The trial began in July of 2013 and after two weeks the jury awarded Bissonnette $103,000 in damages which included the calculation for his lost wages and back pay from the time he’d been terminated to the time of trial.

He was also awarded 100% punitive damages.

Highland Park filed a Motion to Set Aside the Verdict, which means that they asked the judge to ignore the jury’s decision and award and find in their favor.

Judge Peck listened to the arguments.  The company claimed that their decision to fire was not related to Bissonnette taking a leave, but that it was a business decision, and was prompted solely by financial considerations.

The Judge, in denying the Motion, disagreed, stating that the employer began negotiating with the IT firm after the employee went on leave, and the Court pointed out that the cost savings of hiring the IT firm over retaining the employee was “unclear.”  Based on this evidence, the Court held that a jury could reasonably conclude that the employer interfered with the employee’s FMLA rights.

The Judge also decided that the jury could have, based on the testimony, found that the employer retaliated against Mr. Bissonnette.  His performance reviews were all positive and Highland Park had only decided to replace him after he had taken FMLA leave.  The Judge was also unswayed by the company’s contradictory explanations and pointed out that the company seemed to have saved no money by hiring the IT firm and replacing Bissonnette.

The Court also awarded liquidated damages.  It explained that courts should normally impose liquidated damages equal in amount to the economic damages awarded by the jury unless the employer can demonstrate that it both acted in good faith and had reasonable grounds for believing its actions were not an FMLA violation.  The Court determined the employer did not meet this high standard.  The employer’s human resources manager admitted he was familiar with the FMLA’s requirements, and the Court once again focused on the timing of the IT firm’s hiring and the employee’s termination.  As the Court pointed out, when the employee was terminated, the employer asked him to sign a severance agreement with substantially longer severance pay and health insurance coverage than another employee who was terminated around the same time as part of the employer’s planned reduction in force.  The agreement also acknowledged that the defendant did not violate any laws, while the other employee’s severance agreements did not contain this acknowledgement.  Though the Court did not explicitly state it, it suggested the employer was aware its actions could be seen as violating the FMLA.  In a subsequent decision, the Court also awarded attorney’s fees and prejudgment interest, bringing the total award to $536,000.

If you or someone you know has been terminated in retaliation for taking a leave of absence under the FMLA, contact Stephen Danz & Associates at (877) 789-9707 or use the Contact Form on our website to schedule a free consultation today.  Stephen has more than three decades of experience defending employees in California and around the world against the unlawful actions of their employers.  He and one of his associates will sit down with you in a location that is convenient to your work, school or home to discuss the facts of your case and outline any possible causes of action you may have. We look forward to defending your rights.