My Cousin Vinny was a wonderful movie in many respects. One of those respects involves the cross examination by Vinny of a so-called eye witness. After close questioning, the “eye witness” admitted he had made eggs and grits while the two defendants were supposedly robbing a small, rural store. As Vinny explained, the witness could not have possibly cooked his 20 minute grits and eggs during the five minutes he said he saw the defendants enter and rob the store. His time estimate was way off. As cross examinations go, it was actually good.

In Novato Healthcare Center v. National Labor Relations Board, No. 17-1221 (D.C.Cir. 3/5/2019), the employer fired four union organizers two days before the election to unionize. Like Vinny’s two defendants, the case here turned on the testimony of one person, a supervisor who allegedly saw the four organizers sleeping on the job. In reaching its result, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals could not help but point to Vinny as precedent for skilled cross-examination. The supervisor testified that she saw the four workers asleep and then 21 minutes later, the workers were still asleep. The supervisor then took she took a picture of two of the workers/organizers. If they slept more than 10 minutes, the maximum time allowed for a personal break, then they committed a fireable offense.

The four workers were working the night shift at a healthcare facility. The job duties slow down a great deal at 4:00 a.m., but they still cannot sleep while on duty. So, the question becomes were they on duty when the supervisor took the picture of them sleeping? The supervisor said she saw them asleep at about 4:00 a.m. and then still asleep at 4:21 a.m., the time of her photo. So, that would mean they had slept 21 minutes or longer.

The supervisor, however, lost her credibility when under cross-examination, she admitted to performing the following tasks during that alleged 5-10 minutes:

  • drove three blocks to the healthcare facility, stopping at one stop sign about mid-way
  • parked her car and went into the facility
  • walked to her office where she logged onto her computer and checked email
  • walked to the facility kitchen, where she checked the temperature logs for a refrigerator and for a walk-in freezer, and checked the labels and dates of the items in the refrigerator
  • walked to and through the break room, where she used the rest room and collected anti-union organizing material
  • gone back to her office and read the anti-union flyers
  • walked down the hallway, peeking into rooms along the way, checking on patients
  • and then arrived at a nurse’s station where she claims she saw the two workers (organizers/employees) asleep

And, she had already admitted under direct examination that she also opened the oven doors, inspected the stove and tidied up the kitchen. As the court of appeals recognized, that was just too many tasks for 15-20 minutes. At another portion of her cross-examination, she estimated the time it took for these various activities, one-by-one. Those time estimates pushed the time period even longer. It did not help her testimony that she denied knowing the workers were union organizers, when testimony had already established they were wearing union lanyards.Or, that she had initially denied wearing an anti-union lanyard that day and later had to retract her denial.

Too, she said all four employees were asleep at 4:21. Yet, she only took pictures of two of the sleeping workers. And, she made no attempt to wake them up. It strains credulity to think a supervisor would not wake a sleeping employee at a healthcare facility. The D.C. Court of Appeals would not buy it. After all, neither would Vinny if he were writing the opinion.

See the decision here.

 

 I spoke about depositions in general a couple of weeks ago.  Now, let’s talk about employee depositions in a San Antonio employment lawsuit.  The plaintiff employee deposition is critical to success for any employment lawsuit.  The plaintiff employee must be able to show the opposing attorney and the employer that the employee can testify, can present well to a jury and tell a coherent story.  It is not as easy as it sounds.

The employee has to get past some of the pain, enough to testify without breaking down.  Too many tears will impede a story.  And, as Mike Maslanka shows in a recent post, the plaintiff employee must be able to look at his/her case with enough objectivity to admit possible error on his/her part.  Mike mentions one if his favorite questions to ask (in a deposition, I am sure) "what errors on your part helped lead up to the termination?"  No one is perfect, so if you answer, "none," you risk appearing dishonest.  If you admit to too many mistakes, or to some very significant mistakes, then you risk losing your entire case.  

The plaintiff employee deposition will go as long as several hours and as short as a couple of hours.  It is emotionally draining for every client I have had.  It can get intense.  The plaintiff employee must re-live the very horrible experience of losing a job through no fault of his or hers.  I have had many clients cry either during the deposition itself or during a break.  

Some clients do not hold up, at all.  Some plaintiff employees are suffering from various issues that cause them to be easily lead by opposing counsel.  One former client admitted to opposing counsel that he complained about discrimination on Tuesday, even though he and I both knew it was Monday.  if it was Monday, then he had a good retaliation claim.  If it was Tuesday, then he had no retaliation claim.  Why would he say Tuesday?  I may never know, other than he was simply easily lead on cross-examination.  

Employers will often ask the same question two or three times.  The same question.  But, it is an important question.  "State all facts on which you believe you were the victim of discrimination."  If the plaintiff employee omits one or two key facts, then s/he may lose the right to allege those key facts in the lawsuit.  

Another "catch-22" is that nice is important,  Any witness risks offending the jury if the witness is too rude or pushy.  Niceness does count.  But, if the witness or plaintiff employee do not "fight" for their position in a deposition, then they risk the opposing lawyer defining their story.  The plaintiff employee must be "nice" to some degree, but s/he also needs to fight for her answer, sometimes. 

Cross examination is all about one word answers.  Opposing counsel wants the plaintiff employee to answer yes or no.  But, some questions require explanation.  "Isn’t it true you never called in when you were sick?’  Yes, but…..  "Yes, but the employer did not require employees to call in if they were ill more than one day.  We did not have to call in everyday if we were out more than one day."    The explanation fills in a huge gap about why the employee did not call in.  At some point, the employee plaintiff must provide this key fact.  The risk is that in not providing a key fact, the plaintiff lawyer may not be able to use that key fact when the judge decides summary (ie, quick) judgment.  

So, yes, the plaintiff employee deposition is very important.