A recent case from Central Florida highlights the importance of maintaining and properly implementing updated and compliant equal employment opportunity and antidiscrimination policies. The case involved disability discrimination claims, and a jury ultimately found in favor of the employee and rendered a $4.5 million verdict. The case is a reminder of the importance of complying with employment discrimination laws and the need to take extra caution when determining whether a termination is justified.
Fields Motorcars of Florida is an auto dealer in Central Florida. Michael Axel worked for Fields for about 10 years. During his employment, he was never disciplined. In fact, he was commended and received awards for his performance.
During his tenure at Fields, Axel was diagnosed with kidney cancer. He received treatment, including having a kidney removed, and he eventually returned to work. Upon his return, he was able to perform all his duties, including his essential responsibilities. He claimed he was very productive after his return to work, but he was passed over for promotions. Ultimately, Fields demoted and then discharged Axel for failing to follow company policy.
Fields terminated Axel after a vice president and general manager alleged he forged a document when he first started working for the company. However, Fields did not perform an independent investigation or speak with Axel prior to terminating him. Axel claimed that the letter was not forged, management authorized him to execute the document, and he did nothing wrong.
Ultimately, Axel sued the employer, alleging his termination was motivated by discriminatory animus. Specifically, he claimed Fields terminated him because of his age. He was older than 40 at the time of his termination, and thus, he was protected under age discrimination laws. Axel also alleged that he was terminated because he suffered from kidney cancer and had to take time off to undergo treatment. He contended that the reason provided by Fields for his termination was not the true reason but rather an excuse to engage in discrimination. A jury agreed.
The jury did not believe that Axel was discriminated against because of his age, but it did believe that he was discriminated against because of his disability—i.e., kidney cancer. He filed his disability discrimination claim under the Florida Civil Rights Act, the state law prohibiting discrimination in employment. The Act provides a host of damages to employees who have been discriminated against.
The jury ultimately awarded Axel $4.5 million: $680,000 in lost wages and damages, $600,000 for emotional pain and suffering, and $3,220,220 in punitive damages (i.e., damages designed to punish an employer for wrongdoing). Attorneys’ fees and costs, which are typically awarded to prevailing employees, were not included in the verdict. Axel v. Fields Motorcars of Florida, Inc., No. 8:15-cv-893-17JSS (M.D. Fla., Feb. 22, 2017).
How do you avoid this outcome and account for risk?
Disability discrimination occurs when an employee who has a qualifying disability and is qualified to perform his job is treated differently by the employer in some way, shape, or form and suffers harm. Obviously, terminations, suspensions, and demotions are types of actionable conduct employees can seek redress for if the actions are taken because of discrimination against a protected class. Employers always have the ability to respond to discrimination claims by putting forth a legitimate reason for the challenged action. However, the reason must be solid and nondiscriminatory.
There are many ways to ensure your reason is sufficient. The reason for taking action against an employee (e.g., a reason for terminating him) should be well documented. The reason should merit termination (or whatever action is taken). It should be a reason that led you to issue discipline to or take action against other employees in the past. At the very least, take extra caution if other employees committed the same or similar offenses but were not disciplined in the same manner. Finally, investigate and determine whether allegations of misconduct or performance deficiencies are true and accurate. Doing those things can go a long way toward putting your company in the best position to defend against discrimination claims.