San Antonio employment law

Clients and potential clients often ask me at some point what is the value of his/her case? What little they know of its value is colored by the ubiquitous Personal Injury lawyer ads. Or, sometimes, their knowledge is influenced by what some brother-in-law knows, or thinks he knows. So, some clients, a small percentage, expect wealth and riches.

Employment cases are not car wreck cases. The employment discrimination statutes provide for specific types of damages. Title VII and the Texas law equivalent, Texas Commission on Human Rights Act, provide for lost pay and benefits, compensatory damages, punitive damages and costs of prosecuting the lawsuit which includes attorney’s fees. There is nothing more. There is not, for example, such a thing as an award for the value of the home you lost or the divorce the job loss caused. Those sorts of losses do help show emotional suffering. But, no, there will be no dollar for dollar award regarding a lost home. I wish there were. The judge cannot award anything not allowed by statute.

Lost pay and benefits include more than may meet the eye. It includes lost pay of course. It includes all lost benefits. So, save that COBRA letter that records the dollar amount paid by the employer for your medical insurance. You need a record of what the employer paid for your insurance, not for what you paid.

Lost benefits include retirement benefits. Terminations involve different calculations than failure to promote. Lost promotions or raises can affect how much a 401K would grow. Some workers can “guesstimate” how much their retirement would have grown if they had received a particular step increase. If the client cannot make an estimate, then an economist may be necessary.

Lost bonuses count. Of course, the employer will claim bonuses are never guaranteed. They may even point to policies which provide bonuses are never certain and depend on financial success each fiscal year. But, if the actual practice suggests that bonuses are likely and that failure to pay a bonus may have been motivated by discriminatory animus, then there will be a fact issue regarding bonuses. If there is a factual issue, then the issue should be be decided by a judge or jury.

Arriving at an amount for compensatory damages is complicated. Compensatory damages describes damages intended to compensate a person for emotional suffering. There is no simple way to measure emotional suffering. The actual amount to be awarded is up to a jury. Most juries do not award anything for emotional suffering.

Punitive damages are even more rare than emotional suffering type damages.

Of course, all these amounts are subject to caps. Title VII and the the TCHR Act are capped at various levels based on number of employees. The highest cap is $300,000. So, even the largest employer in the country will never see a larger award than $300,000 in compensatory damages.

Once in a blue moon, we might see a jury award a million dollars for compensatory damages. But, that amount will be reduced by a judge to the appropriate cap level.

But, no matter how small, surely it is better that an errant employer pay something for violating the law and causing so much harm.

The ADA Amendments Act was passed in 2008 and became effective in 2009. Only now are we seeing cases interpreting those important changes. One significant change concerns the “regarded as” claim. The old ADA protected persons who were fired because they were “regarded as” disabled. But, the old ADA also required that to merit that protection, the person had to suffer from an actual impairment. That ruling meant many persons in the early stages of an illness or impairment were not protected. Their disability simply had not progressed far enough. So, the ADA Amendments Act broadened the requirement of “regarded as” to also include persons who were simply perceived as impaired. The ADAAA removed the requirement that a person suffer from an actual impairment that limits a major life activity.

In Mesa v. City of San Antonio, No. SA-17-CV-654 (W.D. Tex. 8/16/2018), the Court addressed a critical component of this new “regarded as” claim. How serious does the impairment have to be before the impairment can become the subject of a “regarded as” claim? In Mesa, the worker suffered from a shoulder injury. He recovered from that shoulder injury within eight days. In moving for summary judgment, the employer argued that the condition was “transitory and minor.” The ADAAA provides that the protections of the “regarded as” claim do not extend to conditions which are transitory and minor. The court in Mesa first addressed the question regarding who must show that an impairment is transitory and minor. The court reviewed the pertinent regulations and found this status to be a defense, so the burden lay with the defendant to show a condition was transitory or minor. So, in moving for summary judgment, the employer must show no genuine issue of material fact regarding the status of transitory and minor.

The Act defines an impairment as one which lasts six months or longer. Mr. Mesa’s condition apparently lasted less than six months. But, what is “minor”? The court noted that the employer focused on the wrong analysis in its motion for summary judgment. The employer argued in its motion for summary judgment that there was no evidence that any person at CPS Energy, the employer, viewed Mr. Mesa’s impairment as anything but transitory and minor. That was the wrong inquiry, said the Court.

The proper question was whether the employer believed the employee had an impairment which objectively could be viewed as transitory and minor. That is, was the employer aware of an impairment, which objectively could constitute a brief illness or injury? The court was saying that the employee must show not that the employer viewed the health condition as transitory and minor, but must instead show 1) that the employer viewed the impairment as a particular diagnosis, 2) which objectively may last longer than six months or is otherwise not minor.

The court engaged in detailed review of the facts and noted that CPS Energy took actions which did show they believed the employee had a shoulder injury which persisted, even after apparent treatment. They required him to take a fitness-for-duty examination, for example, even after receiving a medical report. Management also considered requiring the employee to undergo an MRI. Management took several steps even after initial assurances of his recovery. And, as the court noted, the employee was removed from work via an ambulance when the injury first occurred. All those facts suggest an impairment which was something more than minor.So, even though the condition may have lasted less than six months, it was something more than minor.

The court then noted that shoulder injuries as a matter of course, are unpredictable. It found that the plaintiff had presented adequate evidence to show genuine issue of fact whether the injury was not “minor” and whether he had been placed on unpaid leave due to his perceived injury. See the decision here.

If it was not so serious, the story in Tarrant County, Texas would be humorous. A small community near Ft. Worth has a City Councilman who is Muslim. Shahid Shafi has served as a Republican Councilman in Southlake since 2014. He is a doctor. He has served as delegate to state Republican conventions. In July, 2018, he was appointed vice chairman of the Tarrant County Republican Party. Within days of that appointment, a couple of precinct chairs have sought his removal. Dorrie O’Brien and others believe Dr. Shafi represents an attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood organization to infiltrate the Republican Party. Based on no evidence, these precinct chairpersons believe Dr. Shafi seeks too impose the dreaded Sharia law in Texas (and the hordes will multiply!) and that he has some unspecified connection to Jihadi groups. I previously wrote about this story here.

In Facebook posts, Ms. O’Brien has complained often about his appointment as Vice-chairman. She has offered no evidence, says the Texas Tribune, of her assertions about Dr. Shafi. Ms. O’Brien and another precinct chair, Dale Attebery, have asked an anti-Muslim activist, John Guandolo, to come to Tarrant County and conduct training on the dangers of Sharia law. His training will occur on Dec. 29. A vote regarding Dr. Shafi will be held on Jan. 10, 2019. See Texas Tribune story here.

Dr. Shafi came to this country from Pakistan. He has been here 29 years. He says the Republican Party’s belief in small government appeals to him, especially after coming from a country like Pakistan. Leading Republicans in the state have affirmed their support for the doctor. It is ironic that the Muslims who come here are probably the ones most familiar with the horror of actual jihadis. Persons like Ms. O’Brien are attacking the wrong Moslems.

As I have mentioned here, I am continually appalled at the bigotry applied to persons who happen to be Moslem. It is comparable to blaming Presbyterians for acts committed by Methodists. Yes, they are all Moslem, but within the very large Muslim faith, there are infinite variations of adherence to one’s faith and one’s interpretation of that faith. It is silly to generalize all some 1.5 billion Moslems based on the actions of some hundreds in Iraq and Afghanistan. That sort of ignorance would be laughable, were it not so serious.

it happens more and more. A jilted lover posts pictures of his former girlfriend on the internet. Only this former lover kept doing it over and over. Mark J. Uhlenbrock was a pilot for United Airlines. He formed a relationship with a stewardess who uses the name Jane Doe. The relationship started in 2002 and lasted about four years. He took some pictures of her in the nude with her permission – and some pictures without permission. The stewardess obtained restraining orders against him here in Bexar County in 2009 and again in 2011. He just kept posting the pictures. The pilot settled her case against him for $110,000. But, the harassment did not stop.

In 2013, the stewardess went to their mutual employer, United Airlines. But, the employer failed to take appropriate action, says the EEOC. The EEOC filed suit recently against United Airlines for failing to do something about the pilot’s conduct. In 2015, Mr. Uhlenbrock was arrested by the FBI and his computers were seized. United granted him ing-term disability in January, 2016. He received the long-term disability payments until July, 2016. In June, 2016, he pleaded guilty in federal court to internet stalking. He was sentenced to 41 months in prison for the offense.

Mr. Uhlenbrock said he had an addiction to posting nude photos on the internet. See San Antonio Express News report here. The EEOC appears to be arguing that United kept the pilot on its payroll several months after he pleaded guilty to stalking and that the employer took no steps to stop him from posting the pictures. The challenge in these sorts of cases is showing the employer had a duty to address behavior which occurred off-premises. This may become the exemplar for such cases, since the relationship clearly started on company premises on company time. At least one of the pictures was of Ms. Doe in her flight attendant uniform.

Even worse, the federal violations continued long after the stewardess complained. Ms. Doe filed suit in state court in Bexar County, and complained to management long before the EEOC filed this new lawsuit. At one point, United said it could not take action because the harassment was not related to work. The captain never received any discipline for his conduct. See Texas Lawyer report. The lawsuit is filed as Suit No. 18-CV-817 in the Western District.

Pres. Trump and AG Sessions started a policy separating children from their parents at the border last April. It lasted just a few weeks, but resulted in some 2500 children separated form their children. The policy was changed and the federal government was able to re-unify most of the families. But, there are still several hundred children who are apart from some 500 parents.A federal judge in San Diego has presided over a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU. The challenge now is those 500 parents were deported. This is a transient, mobile population. It will be very difficult to find them.

In a recent filing, the Department of Justice unwisely said the ACLU could locate these parents. DOJ said with their network of NGO’s. volunteers and other resources, the ACLU could find the parents. The DOJ was apparently trying to make a joke. The ACLU has no such network. It is more or less a national law firm, composed of individual lawyers in various cities. “NGO” refers to non-governmental organizations. The ACLU has no “network” of NGO’s. DOJ knows that. I can only think they intended the comment as a joke of some sort.

The judge, Dana Sabraw, said to be a dignified sort of judge, did not rise to the bait. He simply told the DOJ that this problem, created by the Trump administration must be solved by the Trump Administration. Judge Sabraw said that sort of plan was not “acceptable.”

It is never wise to make jokes about major problems. The judge will remember that callous humor later when DOJ might wish to be taken seriously. See AP news report here.

Judge Lynn Hughes in the Southern District of Texas is a difficult judge. He harangues attorneys who appear before him. He cancels discovery, even though the federal rules of civil procedure provide otherwise. He is a difficult judge on several levels. In the case of USA v. Swenson, No. 17-20131 (5th Cir. 7/3/2018), the US Attorney prosecuted an adoption agency for fraud. Shortly before trial, the US Attorney dumped thousands of documents on the defense. There were indications that the prosecution had been hiding or withholding documents until the defense knew to ask for those specific documents. The day before trial, the parties had another conference in front of Judge Hughes. The prosecution brought yet another large pdf file of documents to the hearing. The prosecutor apologized to the court, saying she had overlooked the documents.

Judge Hughes fussed at the prosecutor. He said she is supposed to know what she is doing. He said it was better in the old days, because the prosecutors wore dark suits and blue ties. They did not let “girls” do this in the old days. The case had been continued three time already. So, the judge dismissed the case with prejudice.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit panel found there was no Brady violation here, meaning the prosecutor did not intentionally withhold material that would have helped the defense. It noted that the district court did not explain why one more continuance – the first continuance to be requested by the prosecutor  – would not suffice. The Fifth Circuit reversed the dismissal and remanded the matter back to the district court. But, remarkably, the appellate court remanded the case not back to the same judge, but to the chief judge to re-assign the case to a different judge. That is, the court remanded the case to a different judge, not back to Judge Hughes. See the decision here.

Reassigning to a different judge is as clear a rebuke as judges get. I expect it was the comment about “girls” that concerned the court of appeals. But, Judge Hughes is always a concern for the Fifth Circuit.

Pres. Trump has dis-invited the Philadelphia Eagles to the White House. The reigning Super Bowl champs are typically invited to the White House. The President indicated it was because of a disagreement over whether to stand for the national anthem at football games. See CBS news report. The President issued a statement that said:

“They disagree with their president because he insists that they proudly stand for the National Anthem, hand on heart, in honor of the great men and women of our military and the people of our country,”

As a retired member of that great military, all I can say is that is what I believed when I was in first grade, too. In fact, I attended a military school in first grade and absolutely believed that standing straight and tall during the national anthem meant I was a good patriot. Now, I know better. I grew up during the 60’s and 70’s. I was perfectly okay with protests for the right reason. Now, a lifelong student of history, I can point to dozens of examples of great patriots who protested in favor of sincere beliefs. Many of those protests would later go on to be vindicated. But, I guess it is better politics to think like a first grader……

P.S. You have not lived until you have sung the national anthem in a war zone. It was a surreal experience. Singing it at football games now almost seems to trivialize the song.

To mark Memorial Day, I would also like to recall two area San Antonio heroes. They were both fiends of mine. They both died in war zones back in 2005 and 2006 when I was deployed myself.

SSGT Clinton Newman was a fine soldier. He was a bright young man in the 321st Civil Affairs Brigade during my brief time with the 321st here in San Antonio. One of the nice things about being in your hometown unit is that I actually ran into a member of my unit at a movie. I ran into SSGT Newman when he was at a movie with his girl and I was with mine. He was one of the few 321st soldiers still here back in late 2003 and early 2004, while most of the unit was deployed. See a biographical sketch to learn more about someone who would have been a fine citizen of San Antonio and was already an excellent soldier.

I served with Albert E. Smart way back in the 2/141 Infantry Battalion in Corpus Christi. We were young company commanders together. Albert was gung-ho and always smiling. Years later, I was quite surprised to see him in the 321st CA Brigade here in San Antonio. He deployed in 2005 and passed away in Kuwait on the way to Afghanistan. It was such a shock that someone so young, in such good physical shape would pass away from an illness. I think Heaven is in much better physical shape now that Albert is there. And, I expect there are a great many more smiles among its citizens. See a memorial here to learn more about my buddy, Albert.

It is probably the first legal advice I ever received. In law school, the teachers told us if the police say do this or do that, do it. Do not argue your rights with the police on the street, they emphasized. On the street, you do what the police officers say. Period. If the police violate your rights, you can file a complaint later. But, on the street, you do what they say.

So, it may not be popular to say this, but I feel that Sterling Brown was in the wrong when he refused police officer direction to remove his hands from his pockets. See NBC news report. Mr. Brown’s response to being told to take his hands out of his pockets was, “Hold on. I’ve got stuff in my hands.” The situation quickly escalated after he told the police to “hold on.” When the police tell you to do something, you need to do it. Police have a target on their back. They have to control the situation.

I am sure the Milwaukee police could have handled this situation better. But, when law enforcement says take your hands out of your pockets, you have no choice.

Way back when, when I was in my twenties. I was passing through “Fleasville,” also known as Leesville, Louisiana, heading to my then home, Alexandria. I was passing through about midnight. The police stopped me for some reason. Out of habit, I slipped my hands in my pockets without thinking. Immediately, those small town police officer shouted for me to remove my hands from my pockets. The urgency in their tone was clear. As quick as I could, I removed my hands. To me, it was no big deal. My hands can rest wherever.  But, to the police, it was a potential threat to their lives. Just do what they say. To you, it is no big deal. To the police, it is about life or death.

One of the many challenges with every employment case involves which judge hears the lawsuit. If the wrong judge is assigned to a given lawsuit, the chances  of prevailing diminish. Lauren Browning learned this when she filed a lawsuit in 2005 alleging she was discriminated against on the basis of her gender at Southwest Research Institute here in San Antonio, Texas. Dr. Browning was a scientist, the only female scientist in her department. She complained about discrimination in general and in regard to her pay. In response, she was threatened with firing and was told her travel reimbursement requests would be looked at very closely. The SWRI Administrator pounded his fist on her desk and accused her of abusing the travel rules at the Institute. Her supervisor kept a secret file on her. Her boss warned her not to go to HR about her pay issues, again. Dr. Browning quit. She filed suit a year later.

The employer moved for summary judgment. Magistrate Judge Primomo recommended granting the motion. In his Recommendation, he consistently construed the evidence in favor of the employer, not the employee. For example, he mentioned that Dr,. Browning’s supposed written complaints about discrimination did not clearly invoke discrimination. He never mentioned that she also complained verbally. His recommendation disregarded Plaintiff’s affidavit that she wrote on the back of one of her evaluations that she felt she was the victim of wage disparities based on her gender. Yet, the Magistrate did accept affidavit testimony from her superior. The magistrate was expecting a higher level of evidence from the plaintiff than from the defendant.

The Magistrate Judge discussed the plaintiff’s allegation that she was not promoted, while men with inferior qualifications were promoted. The Magistrate Judge concluded that the plaintiff claimed no supervisor “approached” her about seeking a promotion. The Magistrate was suggesting the plaintiff expected management to come to her about possible promotions, an obviously unrealistic expectation. But, the plaintiff’s claims involved much more than that. The plaintiff actually said there was no way for a scientist to learn of any promotion opportunity because the openings were not posted. Even if they were posted, there was no mechanism by which an employee could apply for given position. Again, the Magistrate Judge construed the available evidence against the employee.

The Magistrate Judge claimed the secret file on her could not have upset her, because it was secret. The Magistrate Judge never mentioned that keeping a secret file suggests illicit motive on the part of the supervisor. He was viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the movant, not to the non-movant.

It did not help Dr. Browning’s case that she quit. After years of abusive treatment, Dr. Browning quit. That means in a lawsuit for Title VII discrimination, she must show she was forced to quit. Mag. Judge Primomo found the conditions were not so bad that she truly had to quit. In finding the conditions were not so bad, the Magistrate Judge relied on testimony from the management witnesses while disregarding Dr. Browning’s testimony.

The Magistrate even found an argument not advanced by the employer. The Magistrate claimed that having Dr. Browning interview her replacement was not humiliating because she did not yet know she would resign. Yet, there was no evidence in the record regarding when the plaintiff decided to resign. The Magistrate Judge was looking for evidence to help the employer, not the employee. Mag. Judge Primomo did the same thing in Heinsohn v. Carabin and Shaw, No. 14-CV-00094 (W.D.Tex.). In Heinsohn, Mag. Judge Primomo again came up with an argument that helped the employer which had not been advanced by the employer. A court should not enter a summary judgment for an employer based upon a reason not articulated by the employer but identified sua sponte by the district court. Thomas v. Eastman Kodak Co., 183 F.3d 38, 62 (1st Cir. 1999). The Magistrate Judge was trying to help the employer. Yet, at the summary judgment stage, his task was to construe evidence in favor of the employee.

Regarding summary judgment, the court must view the evidence in favor of the non-movant. The point of summary judgment is not to arrive at the truth, but to test the evidence and see whether there is enough evidence to justify a trial. A tie ought to go to the plaintiff. The Browning v. Southwest Research Institute case was complicated. The briefs for both sides exceeded 40 pages each. The plaintiff appealed to the appointed judge, Fred Biery. But, Judge Biery accepted the Magistrate’s finding with a very brief three page opinion. Judge Biery’s decision accepted the Recommendation with little discussion of the very complicated evidence.

The plaintiff then appealed to the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans. Dr. Browning drew a generally pro-employer judge, Edith Jones. Judge Jones issued a decision that does not discuss the evidence in any detail. Instead, the opinion simply refers to the plaintiffs’ “broad conclusory” allegations. The decision nitpicks the evidence to find objective facts supporting a failure to promote while disregarding the subjective use made of those apparent facts. For example, Dr. Browning is accused of making gratuitous negative comments about co-workers, as if that alone would justify a low evaluation. But, the better question is how were comparable male workers evaluated for same or similar offenses? Did male co-workers receive the same poor evaluations for a similar offense? That is the critical question. Judge Jones never asked that question. The Fifth Circuit decision looks at the incident in which her boss threatened her with termination when she complained about unequal pay and concludes they were simply discussing pay issues. Judge Jones minimized her evidence. Again, the judge construed the evidence not in favor of the employee, but in favor of the employer.

The Fifth Circuit decision never mentioned the incident in which the Administrator pounded his fist on Dr. Browning’s desk and said he would scrutinize Dr. Browning’s travel reimbursement requests. In the end, the Fifth Circuit opinion found nothing occurred other than the normal “petty annoyances” in any job. The Fifth Circuit and Judge Jones issued a result-oriented decision. Dr. Browning lost, again. See the Fifth Circuit opinion here.

So, in a case in which a woman complained about discrimination and was met with fist pounding and threats of termination, she could not even get a trial. The plaintiff appealed to the U.S. Supreme court. But, the Supreme Court accepts less than 1% of the appeal filed. Hers was not one of the lucky few.

Recently, Dr, Browning spoke with the Medium about her lawsuit experience. See Medium report here. Needless to say, she found the legal experience to be result oriented. Facts were less important than the fact that she was an employee and her case appeared in front of the wrong judges. Dr. Browning no longer works in her field. She was not able to find employment in the field she loved. The employer offered to settle her case, despite winning at the district court. Dr. Browning, however, declined to settle, since any settlement would require her to agree to a confidentiality clause. She insisted on her right to discuss what happened to her, both at her place of employment and in our civil justice system.