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$231K jury verdict upheld in favor of employee who was fired for grand jury service

By Marjorie Johnson, J.D.

The employee claimed an HR rep told her she needed to choose between her job and jury duty and that while serving on the grand jury, her supervisor documented alleged performance deficiencies that purportedly led to her discharge.

A federal court in Missouri declined to disturb a $231,500 jury verdict in favor of an employee who claimed that she was wrongfully discharged from her job with a food service management company for serving on a grand jury, in violation of state public policy. Denying the employer’s renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law, or alternatively for a new trial, the court found the employee established the requisite causal connection and entitlement to punitive damages, and rejected the employer’s contention that her recovery for emotional distress damages was barred by the state’s workers’ compensation law (King v. Southwest Foodservice Excellence, LLC, November 18, 2019, Perry, C.).

Told to choose between job or jury duty. The jury heard evidence that the employee advised her employer she had been summoned for grand jury service in early August, and that once she was selected as a grand juror, she also communicated the days she was required to serve. Though the employer knew that jury service was a protected status under Missouri law, subject to nondiscrimination protections, an HR rep told the employee shortly after she began her jury service she would have to choose between her job or jury duty.

Supervisor disciplines, begins documenting. On August 21, the employee’s supervisor disciplined her for failing to perform a specific job duty a week earlier, when it was known that she was serving on the grand jury. The supervisor also sought her termination for this incident, but was overruled by the food director. The supervisor then began keeping a detailed list of food deficiencies that occurred during the period of the employee’s jury service, but did not talk to her about them. She also didn’t try to clear up any misunderstanding regarding who had food-ordering responsibilities during her jury duty even though the employee and her coworker thought the supervisor shared this responsibility in her absence. The supervisor also complained that the employee’s absence caused her to spend too much time at the employee’s school and possibly neglect the other schools she supervised.

Terminated. With the assistance of HR, the supervisor prepared the employee’s termination notice on October 15, which was presented to the food director along with a list of documented food-deficiencies. Without verifying that it was the employee’s responsibility to place the food orders during her period of jury service, or that she was the one who placed improper orders, the director signed the termination notice. When it was presented to the employee on October 20, this was the first time she was informed of the food deficiencies and that the employer expected her to be solely responsible to place food orders during her jury service.

Jury verdict. Following trial of the employee’s wrongful discharge claim, a jury returned a verdict in her favor and awarded her $156,500 in actual damages and $75,000 in punitive damages. In its renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law, the employer argued amongst other things that the employee failed to establish a causal connection, that she was not entitled to punitive damages, and that Missouri’s workers’ compensation law provided the sole remedy for emotional distress damages.

Causal connection, punitive damages. The court found the evidence supported the jury’s conclusions that her service on the grand jury beginning in August, and continuing through September and October, was a contributing factor in the termination decision. She also showed with “convincing clarity that such wrongful termination was, at the very least, in reckless disregard for her rights and interests, especially given defendant’s knowledge that jury service is a protected status,” and thus she was entitled to punitive damages.

Emotional distress damages. The court also rejected the employer’s contention that the employee’s recovery for emotional distress damages was barred by Missouri’s workers’ compensation (WC) law. The employer argued that if a mental injury resulting from a good-faith termination is not considered to “arise out of and in the course of employment,” then such an injury from a “bad-faith termination” must be considered employment-related and covered by the WC law. It further argued that the question of whether the employee’s injury was an “accident” for WC purposes was reserved exclusively to the Missouri Labor and Industrial Relations Committee.

The court relied upon another case which held that the WC law does not apply to claims of emotional distress that arise directly from unemployment rather than from the termination itself. That rationale applied here since the employee presented evidence that after her termination, she could no longer pay her bills, she lost her home, she was forced to move to an apartment and give up her dogs, she collected food stamps, and went to food pantries. She cried a lot, could not sleep, and was depressed. Therefore, the WC law did not apply since her distress arose from the circumstances that occurred after her discharge and did not “arise out of and in the course of” her employment. Thus, it was irrelevant whether her injury was an “accident” under the WC law.

Properly excluded evidence of denied grievance. The employer also failed to convince the court that it was entitled to a new trial since it wasn’t allowed to present evidence that it denied the employee’s grievance filed under the union contract and which the agent did not pursue further. This would have required additional evidence regarding the grievance process itself, union policies, and reasons underlying the union representative’s decisions. “Undergoing such a mini-trial on a collateral issue” would have likely led to “confusion of the issues and undue delay.”