The California appeals court upheld the lower court’s decision in a wrongful termination suit that awarded a former self-storage employee, Eva O’Brien, $1.325 million. The award covered wrongful termination and punitive damages. Eva O’Brien was awarded:
· Compensatory Damages: $325,000
· Punitive Damages: $1,000,000
· And the cost of legal fees
The case was against Dennis E. Baca, the owner of Airport Self Storage located in Livermore, California.
When the lower court issued their decision, Baca motioned for a new trial. His motion was denied. When the motion was denied, Baca appealed the lower court’s decision arguing that the plaintiff did not provide sufficient evidence to support the jury’s verdict. He also argued that the award for damages was excessive and accused O’Brien’s legal counsel of misconduct in the process of the trial.
Baca and his self-storage facility manager, Laura Read, hired O’Brien at $15/hour as a “relief clerk” in November 2010. In addition to being the facility manager, Read is described as being Baca’s “longtime companion.” O’Brien was to work three days each week at the self-storage facility and the other two days of the work week at the company’s business office. The self-storage business also does business as Baca Properties, owners of various commercial assets.
In early summer 2022, O’Brien discovered she was pregnant and advised her manager, Read, even though she was warned by a co-worker that Baca would be unhappy hearing the news. In a meeting between Read, Baca and O’Brien on October 7th, Baca berated O’Brien, throwing a rental agreement at her and accusing her of only thinking about her family, “making so many mistakes,” not paying attention, complaining that her “belly” was going to get so big it would prevent her from doing her work and also complaining that after that she would be breast feeding and “causing more problems.”
According to court documents, that’s not where the berating ended. Allegedly, Baca then got in O’Brien’s face and asked her if she wanted to give notice. O’Brien said no, and Baca told her to get back to work advising her that he was, “not going to take care of [her].” Baca didn’t fire her allegedly because he didn’t want her to collect unemployment, but he did advise another associate at the company that he was going to make her quit and asked another of her co-workers to confiscate her keys to the facility. A few days after the meeting in which Baca first demanded O’Brien give notice, she was told not to answer the phone, collect checks or use the computer. She was instead told to clean, dust, and mop (including cleaning the windows and toilet). These were all duties that she had not been responsible for previously.
A few days later, she was sent home from work after only three hours on the job. She filed a claim with the Employment Development Department for a reduction of work hours. This was not the last time she was sent home early from work (losing a significant number of hours). According to court documentation, the facility manager began the search for O’Brien’s replacement directly after the October 7th meeting and scheduled them to begin work on October 19th. When O’Brien reported for work on the 21st, she was advised that the owner wanted her to go home. When she called her manager to ask when she should return to work, she was told, “We see that you filed for unemployment. We no longer need your services.” Baca included a forged note with O’Brien’s last paycheck to give the appearance that O’Brien had given notice. He later admitted to the court that he wrote the note for that purpose. The court concluded that this action was an “intent to create beneficial evidence if O’Brien sought unemployment benefits for being fired.”
Baca was described as a micromanager and after her treatment on the job and her wrongful termination, O’Brien was treated for both depression and anxiety. She was awarded $25,000 for economic loss and $300,000 for emotional stress by the jury. After Phase II of the trial, the jury decided that the facility owner’s behavior was malicious, oppressive or fraudulent. As a result, O’Brien was awarded $1 million in punitive damages in addition to the other awards.
If you have been the victim of wrongful termination or if you are experiencing discrimination in your workplace, please get in touch with one of the experienced California employment law attorneys at Blumenthal Nordrehaug Bhowmik De Blouw LLP.