This month a $465 million win for Southern California Edison workers was secured. The employees claimed they were punished for reporting harassment – which marked one of at least three high-profile trial losses for employers in discrimination cases this year.
Here’s a look at a trio of verdicts from the past six months that caught employment lawyers’ attention.
SoCal Edison Hit with Massive Race Bias, Retaliation Verdict:
In early June, a California state jury awarded upward of $460 million to two former Southern California Edison workers who said they were retaliated against for reporting severe sexual and racial harassment that they said pervaded the company.
After an eight-week trial in the spring, a jury found that SoCal Edison and its parent company, Edison International, retaliated against Alfredo Martinez and Justin Page and that Page was the subject of sexual harassment.
In addition to $25 million in compensatory damages, the verdict included a whopping $440 million in punitive damages. Martinez, the former supervisor for the company’s Torrance facility, was awarded with $400 million. Page, who worked as a technical planner at the same location, was awarded $40 million.
While the punitive damages will likely be reduced on appeal, the hefty verdict may serve as a deterrent for malfeasance, said Eric Bachman, founder of employment discrimination and whistleblower firm Bachman Law.
"Having a jury come out with nearly half a billion dollars in punitive damages could lead companies to see that they can't just have these hollow anti-discrimination policies in their handbooks; they have to walk the walk and have real teeth to these policies and hold offenders accountable," he said. "Otherwise, there's a chance you're going to get hit with a huge verdict like this."
In the 2017 suit, Page alleged he witnessed dozens of instances of sexual harassment directed at both himself and women in the workplace, as well as racist comments made about Black and Hispanic workers by a number of colleagues and bosses.
Martinez said he saw similar acts of abuse. When he raised the issue with higher-ups, he said, he was subject to a bogus investigation and pushed out of the company.
Both Page and Martinez had submitted multiple complaints to upper management, but their concerns were disregarded, they said. Instead of rooting out the problems, higher-ups placed a target on their backs, they alleged.
Bachman said this is a common theme in employment discrimination suits — that workers face repercussions for voicing concerns, not the bad actors — and employers need to make sure their human resources teams are staffed and trained on conducting proper probes into employee complaints.
"The case really highlights the justifiable concerns that many employees have about going to human resources with complaints," Bachman said. "I hope that this massive verdict helps shine a light on that and leads to better practices when it comes to HR and internal investigations."
The case is Alfredo Martinez et al. v. Southern California Edison Co. et al., in the Superior Court of the State of California, County of Los Angeles.
IT Firm Workers Win $70M in Race Bias Battle:
Glow Networks, an information technology service provider to telecommunications companies, will have to pay 10 employees upward of $7 million each in their race discrimination and retaliation suit after a Texas federal jury sided with the workers on all counts in February.
The case included nine Black employees with claims of mistreatment at work — including facing harassment, demotions or terminations — because of their skin color and in retaliation for complaining about racism. A 10th worker, who is white, said he was demoted and eventually resigned because he reported the mistreatment of Black employees.
After a 10-day trial in February, jurors awarded each of the workers $3 million for past and future pain and suffering, plus $4 million in punitive damages, a result that a federal judge solidified in an April ruling.
Employment attorneys said companies can learn from this legal battle, noting they're seeing a rise in race discrimination suits filed by multiple workers.
"It's an important case for employers and attorneys to note because we're going to see more of these cases filed in the next couple of years," said Paul Hastings LLP employment partner Felicia A. Davis.
Former Glow Networks employees Joshua Yarbrough and Matt Lofland initially filed a proposed class action against the company in late 2019 before adding several other named plaintiffs and removing the class components.
According to the complaint, Yarbrough and eight other Black employees were monitored and scrutinized more than non-Black workers, with the company not allowing them to sit near each other and assigning them to work in front of surveillance cameras. Lofland, who is white, said he was pushed out of the company for reporting and opposing the discrimination.
Davis said employers need to ensure they have a solid system in place for reviewing and investigating complaints.
"One thing that employers have always needed to do, and it continues today, is to have in place a robust complaint investigation process that makes employees feel that their complaints are being heard, that they're being addressed and if anything inappropriate occurred, corrective action is taking place," she said.
That policy should include strong anti-retaliation measures, she added.
The case is Yarbrough et al. v. CSS Corp. et at., in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas.
Unwanted Birthday Party Leads to $450K Award:
A fired lab worker was awarded $450,000 in March after he alleged his employer caused him to suffer panic attacks by throwing him a birthday party he didn't want — and then fired him for his reaction.
Kevin Berling, who said in his 2019 suit that he suffers from anxiety and his birthday is a source of "great stress" for him, alleged he asked the office manager at Gravity Diagnostics LLC to skip any sort of festivities marking the day. The manager ignored the request and organized a lunchtime event, which caused Berling to have a panic attack, according to the complaint.
The next day, Berling was called into a meeting and criticized for his reaction, triggering another attack, he said. He was then sent home and later fired, according to case filings.
A Kentucky state jury sided with Berling after a two-day trial in March, finding he had faced disability discrimination. It awarded him $120,000 in lost wages and benefits, $30,000 in future lost wages and benefits, and $300,000 for pain and suffering.
The facts surrounding the case may seem unique, but experts said birthdays can be a minefield for employment discrimination claims. This case serves as a reminder that businesses need to handle birthdays thoughtfully, they said.
"A birthday is something that is generally viewed as a largely, if not wholly, positive event, a moment when people celebrate one another at work, a team-building opportunity. Yet, it's also a source for liability," said Seyfarth Shaw LLP partner Philippe Weiss, who heads the firm's employer compliance arm, Seyfarth at Work.
Weiss said he's tackled a slew of birthday-related situations, including instances like Berling's where people don't want their birthday celebrated or times when conduct at a birthday party caused the problem.
One common theme Weiss said he sees in birthday-based disputes is remarks being made about a co-worker's age. Whether said by a colleague, written in a snarky birthday card or implied through age-related decorations, these kinds of jokes can spark discrimination claims, Weiss said.
"We see this again and again," he said. "Birthdays in a number of ways are risky and can lead to these really big liability results."
He also noted that in Berling's case, the company had not only disregarded his request for an accommodation, but also penalized him for his response to the party. Weiss said that's a type of fact pattern he often sees in single-plaintiff cases.
"Ultimately, the rubber hits the road not with what happened first, as upsetting as that often is, but what happens next," Weiss said. "The conduct made it alarming, but the poor response made it a case that was very hard to win."
Employers who make a mistake often still have an opportunity to rectify the situation, and they need to be able to recognize that, Weiss said. If they don’t and go as far as to double down on the misstep, they've opened themselves up to the kind of liability that can yield big verdicts, he said.
"The liability in this case was sealed when the company failed to respond properly," Weiss said.
The case is Berling v. Gravity Diagnostics LLC, in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, Kenton Circuit Court Division IV.