Category Archives: Employment Law

Federal Judge Will Consider Jury’s $7.6 Million Verdict

In December, 2011, a federal district court jury returned a $7.6  million verdict in an employment discrimination and retaliation lawsuit in favor of Dr. Vivian Renta and against Cook County.  The plaintiff's attorney wants to increase the jury's advisory award for back pay, front pay, and pension benefits from $3.2 million to $3.8 million based upon different interest rates.  Renta was employed by Stroger Hospital in the pathology department.  Dr. Renta claimed that certain hospital administrators discriminated against her because of her gender and Puerto Rican ancestry.  At one point, Dr. Renta complained about one of her residents being replaced.  Subsequently, she was charged with committing eight serious errors concerning the diagnosis of cancer in a number of patients.  The executive medical staff initially suspended Dr. Renta, and the hospital later revoked her privileges.  Dr. Renta sued, seeking compensation for backpay, lost pension benefits and other damages.  The jury rendered an advisory verdict and recommended that the County pay Dr. Renta $7.6 million.  Judge Feinerman will resolve the issue shortly.  Our experience has been that juries react most strongly to retaliation claims and that significant punitive damages often follow from these cases.

Federal Appeal Court Rejects Retaliation Claim

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a ruling by a lower court dismissing Samone Redd's retaliation claim.  Redd was a probationary employee employed by the Cook County Department of Corrections from November, 2006 through October, 2007.  Redd was asked to resign after she failed to cooperate with an investigation.  She sued, and brought claims for retaliatory discharge, tortious interference and procedural due process.  Redd witnessed a man  attack a woman.  Redd refused to cooperate with the investigation of the crime.  The prosecutors contacted her employer about her lack of cooperation, and the Cook County Sheriff's Office launched their own investigation.  In the sheriff's office investigation, the investigator concluded that Redd violated several department rules and decided to terminate her employment.  Redd contended that she was fired because she refused to perjure herself.  The appeals court, however, rejected the claim as Redd had no evidence that her discharge was actually retaliatory. Thus, she could not demonstrate that she was fired for exercising her First Amendment rights.  The Court also rejected her other claims, noting that the sheriff's office has discretion in terminating its employees.

Federal Judge Allows Will County Jail Sexual Harassment Case To Go Forward

A recent ruling by a federal judge permits a former Will County correctional officer to pursue her sexual harassment case to proceed against the County.  The Plaintiff, Marlis O'Leary, worked at the Will County Jail from 2006 to 2007.  She alleged that male co-workers frequently viewed pornography and maintained an offensive "Book of Shame."  The Book of Shame allegedly was created among the male correctional officers to see who could first sleep with the Plaintiff.  O'Leary claimed that Lt. Marty Shifflet, a former Will County deputy chief condoned the pornographic activity.  In court papers, the sheriff's office says that the book was simply a "photo album containing humorous booking photos of men and women alike."  The federal judge held that there was enough of a claim so that a jury could determine "whether the atmosphere at the (jail) was permeated with incessant unwelcome sexual advances." The Plaintiff's attorney stated that six other female correctional officers complained about being sexually harassed at the jail.  The County maintains that O'Leary left her employment after suffering from a nervous breakdown involving an alleged inmate fight.  O'Leary disputed that.  The case will either proceed to trial in the near future or settle.  When The Law Offices of Eugene K. Hollander represents clients in these kinds of cases, we advise our clients to maintain logs or diaries of all of the untoward conduct, including names, dates, and corroborating witnesses.

Illinois Supreme Court Clarifies Law on Non-Compete Agreements

On December 1, 2011, the Illinois Supreme Court released its opinion in the case of Reliable Fire Equipment Company v. Arrendondo.  In this case, the state high court clarified the law concerning non-compete agreements.  These were the facts in the case.  Reliable Fire Equipment sells, installs and services fire extinguishers and fire and alarm systems.  In 1992, the company hired Rene Garcia as a salesman.  In 1998, it hired Arnold Arredondo as a salesman.  Both employees signed restrice covenants, or non-compete agreements, agreeing to not compete with the company for a period of one year following the termination of their employment from Reliable Fire.  The restriction extended to Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.  Both employees further agreed not to solicit the company's clients or solicit or induce the company's employees from leaving their employment during the restriction period.  In 2004, while Arredondo was still employed by Reliable Fire, he formed a company called High Rise Security Systems, LLC.  High Rise was a competitor to his employer.  Garcia also agreed to become employed by High Rise.  In August, 2004, Reliable Fire's CEO got wind of High Rise and questioned Arredondo and Garcia about the new company - both denied that the formed such an entity.  Arredondo resigned shortly thereafter, and the company later fired Garcia.  Reliable Fire a lawsuit against Arredondo, Garcia and High Rise alleging that they violated Reliable Fire's restrictive covenants.  The defendants filed a Counterclaim, contending that the agreements were unenforceable.  The trial court agreed, and the Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the decision.  The case wound up before the state's high court.  The supreme court stated that the agreements can be upheld if there is consideration to support the agreement, and if the restraints are reasonable.  To determine reasonableness, the court must look at: whether the restraints are necessary to enforce a legitimate business interest of the company, it cannot impose an undue hardship on the promisor or the public, and the scope of the restraint must otherwise be reasonable.  In clarifying the law, the high court held that whether a legitimate business interest exists will depend on the totality of the circumstances of the individual case.  The court overturned the appellate court ruling and sent the case back down to the trial court.

Supreme Court Gives Churches a Pass In Employment Decisions

The United States Supreme Court ruled last Wednesday that churches cannot be sued in employment discrimination suits where the plaintiff is a teacher who serves as a minister of the faith.  Lower courts had previously ruled that churches were immune from such claims, holding that the Constitution included a ministerial exception that insulates churches and schools from government interference.  In deciding in favor of the churches, Justice John Roberts relied upon the First Amendment, and noted that churches "must be free to choose who will guide it on its way."  The ruling will likely not purely secular teachers from bringing employment discrimination claims.

Comcast Hit With Race Discrimination Lawsuit

Comcast Corporation was recently sued in federal court in Chicago by eleven current and former employees of the communcations giant, alleging that they were discriminated against on the basis of race.  The employees, technicians who install equipment, charge that the company fostered a racially hostile work environment becasue they were called derogatory names such as "ghetto techs" or "lazy techs." The plaintiffs also claim that their work facility was infested with bugs and rats.  The technicians further claim that they were required to install defective and/or roach infested equipment in residents' homes, which were predominantly African American.  The employees are seeking class action status.  The plaintiffs hope to recover lost wages and benefits as well as compensatory and punitive damages.

Illinois Appellate Court Clarifies Whistleblower Statute

The Illinois Appellate Court just issued an opinion clarifying the Illinois Whistleblower Statute.  Curtis Brame was a lieutentant with the North Chicago Police Department.  He brought suit against North Chicago, the mayor and police chief, alleging that the chief retaliated against him once he came forward with information that the chief was committing criminal activity.  The defendants filed motions to be dismissed from the case, and the trial court agreed.  On appeal, Brame raised an issue of first impression - whether bringing such claims directly to his employer was protected under the Act.  Previously, Illinois courts concluded that a plaintiff must bring such complaints to a third party agency.  The reviewing court agreed with the plaintiff, and held that the plain language of the act allowed him to bring such concerns directly to his employer.  We believe that this is a common sense approach to the law and will allow many more aggrieved employees access to the courts.

Cook County Hit By Huge Discrimination Verdict

On December 12, 2011, a federal jury in Chicago hit Cook County with a huge discrimination verdict.  Dr. Vivian Renta claimed that the County and Dr. Russell Tomar discriminated against her on the basis of race and gender, and further alleged that the County retaliated against her once she filed a charge of dsicrimination.  The jury agreed, and returned a verdict in the sum of $7.6 million.  Dr. Renta was a senior attending physician in the County's pathology department.  In 2003, she filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, alleging that she had been harassed and been paid less than her peers because of her race, Puerto Rican, and gender.  In September, 2004, the County terminated her employment.  Dr. Renta had been employed by the County for nine years.  The County contended that Dr. Renta misdiagnosed several patients with cancer.  The physician denied the County's assertions, and claimed that her error rate was lower than her peers.  The jury's verdict broke out to $4 million in pain and suffering and $3.2 million in lost wages.  Post-trial motions could reduce the amount of the verdict.  Under federal law, compensatory damages for most discrimination claims are capped at $300,000.  However, Dr. Renta's attorneys will likely submit a petition for attorney's fees, which is allowable for discrimination claims.  I would expect that the claims for fees will be substantial.

Seventh Circuit Revives Discrimination Lawsuit Against Law Firm

Two weeks ago, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals revived a discrimination lawsuit against the law firm of SmithAmundsen, which was dismissed by a federal district court judge.  Laura Makowski was the former Marketing Director of the law firm.  According to her lawsuit, Makowski claimed that while she was on maternity leave in 2008, she was told by the managing partner that her job was being eliminated during a restructuring.  The Human Resources Director allegedly later told her that the law firm fired her because she took maternity leave.  The district court held that the Human Rescources Director's alleged statement was inadmissible hearsay and excluded it when ruling on the employer's motion for summary judgment.  He then dismissed the case.  The appeals court held that the lower court erred in finding that the statement was hearsay, since it was made by an agent of the employer.  Makowski filed suit under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and The Family and Medical Leave Act.

Proposed Legislation Would Add Employment Law Claimants

On November 2, 2011, two senators reintroduced the Civil Rights Tax Relief Act (CRTRA) of 2011 in Congress.  The new act would end two inequities of the tax code that apply to employment law claims: (1) it would eliminate the taxability of non-economic damages, and (2) would reduce the high tax rates of financial recoveries.  This legislation has support on both sides of Congress.