Employment lawsuits tend to be David v. Goliath situations.
On one side, you usually have an individual employee, who claims to be the victim of discrimination, harassment, retaliation, or some other unsavory action in the workplace. On the other side, you usually have a business or institution that probably has a distinct advantage over the individual in terms of resources. If the business or institution is large, the resources difference can be vast.
But sometimes, the little guy (or gal) wins and sends shockwaves through the employment world. We've seen several recent examples of that, and the latest comes close to home here in Alabama.
A federal jury in Montgomery returned a $5.79-million verdict against Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama and a mid-level manager for sexual harassment, negligence, and retaliation.
The jury awarded Tammy Edwards $795,000 in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages against Hyundai. The jury also returned a $10,000 punitive verdict against manager Mike Swindle.
Court documents showed that Swindle harassed Edwards for five months, routinely directing lewd comments toward her. On at least one occasion, he pressed his body against hers and propositioned her.
Birmingham attorneys Alicia and Kenny Haynes represented Edwards. "The jury awarded double what we were asking for," Alicia Haynes said. "They were upset at the negligence."
When Edwards complained about the harassment to upper management, she was retaliated against, Haynes said. The company placed Edwards in a job she physically could not perform, then forced her to take medical leave. She eventually left the company.
We have seen other recent cases where workplace victims prevailed in court. Another Alabama jury awarded $500,000 in a discrimination case against a Birmingham aviation company. A jury in Boston awarded $1.6 million in a case where a female neurosurgeon was subjected to a hostile work environment.
Many of the issues in the Edwards case hit home here at Legal Schnauzer. My supervisor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), Pam Powell, harassed me because of my age for the last five months I was there.
And I know all about retaliation. When I complained to Powell's superior (Dale Turnbough) about the age-based discrimination and harassment I was experiencing--and also filed a formal grievance in UAB Employee Relations--I was placed on administrative leave and then fired.
There are a number of differences between the Edwards case and my experience.
I worked at UAB for 19 years, the last 12 of those under the same supervisor, who I'd had a good relationship with until the final five months I was there. Edwards started at Hyundai in January 2006, and Swindle began harassing her almost immediately. Based on the length of time it takes lawsuits to work through to a jury trial, it appears Edwards worked at Hyundai for about a year.
While sexual harassment was at the heart of the Edwards case, violations of the First Amendment probably will be front and center in my case against UAB. Evidence strongly indicates I was fired because I dared to write a blog that is critical of the Bush Justice Department--even though UAB's own grievance hearing showed I wrote the blog on my own time, with my own resources.
Perhaps the biggest difference in the two cases is that I was fired, and Edwards was not. For good measure, I was fired in direct violation of UAB's own policies.
Does that mean my case against UAB is worth almost $6 million or more? Nope. Does it mean I will win my case and receive any award at all? Nope.
I think it's safe to say that no two employment lawsuits, no two juries, and no two judges are the same. Experience tells me the biggest hurdle I face will be the judge. I've been told by more than one attorney that some federal judges simply do not give plaintiffs a fair shake in employment cases.
In fact, that's just one of several hurdles employment plaintiffs have to get over. We will take a look at those hurdles in a bit.