AnotherGavel.jpgIt’s that time of year again when we look at some of the unbelievable employment cases and what lessons may be learned from them.

The “Devil’s” in the Details

Velma Craig sued the City of New York, her former employer, because the City refused to accommodate her religious beliefs.  Craig, a school safety officer, would not wear the City’s new identification cards because she believed the card’s computer chips storing fingerprints and other information were “the marks of the beast” and she would be “jeopardizing her salvation” if she agreed to accept the card.  Craig was disciplined several times and eventually resigned.  Representing herself, Craig remarkably won her case.  The judge asked the City how it would be burdensome to accommodate Craig’s beliefs but received no meaningful response.  Although Craig won her case, she suddenly dropped her lawsuit prior to a determination of damages.  The judge awarded her $1.00.

Lesson learned:  Even if an employee’s claims seem to be outlandish, the employer still is obliged to consider reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs.  The employer was unable to show why the request to use the old identification card was unreasonable or burdensome, which led to the court ruling in the employee’s favor.

That Ain’t No Charlotte’s Web!

A West Virginia employer was sued by a former employee because he believed he was not provided a safe work environment.  The employee was painting a room in the nursing home facility where he worked when a spider fell from the ceiling and bit him on his right arm.  The employee claimed his employer had a gross disregard for his safety, health and welfare which caused him to have contact with the poisonous spider.

Lesson learned:  The employer in this case most likely would not be liable for “gross disregard” unless the employee could show there was a history of poisonous spiders in the building, a known poisonous spider infestation, or some other circumstance that would place the employer on notice of a potentially dangerous condition.  Here, the employee seems to have simply run into some bad luck.

Gonna Wash That Gray Right Outta My Hair

Plaintiff Sandra Rawline sued her former employer, Capital Title of Texas, LLC, for age discrimination.  Rawline claimed she was fired because she refused to color her gray hair.  The employer disputed that was the reason for her termination and claimed she was fired for coming in to work late smelling of alcohol.  Notably, the employer did not deny a comment was made about Rawline’s hair, but explained it was in the context of suggesting to her that she try “wearing clothes that are more appropriate for the workplace and maybe such as getting her hair trimmed and dyed.”  The employer claimed the comment was made because several complaints were received about her lack of professionalism.  The court disagreed that the comment was evidence of age discrimination and dismissed the lawsuit.

Lesson learned:  Even though the employer successfully defended the case, commenting to an employee that he or she should consider coloring gray hair probably is not the best idea.

Fighting Fire with Fire

A fire captain sued his employer for releasing him from his employment.  The captain was let go because of his fear of entering burning buildings.  In his lawsuit, the captain claimed he was discriminated against because of his disability—which he claimed was a fear of fire.  The department’s position was that he was terminated because he created a danger to himself and others due to his fear of entering burning buildings.  In his disability discrimination lawsuit, the captain was awarded $362,000.  On appeal, however, the court reversed the decision, noting that no reasonable jury could find that a firefighter’s fear of fire is a disability under the ADA or any other state law.

Lesson learned:  Sometimes, it is not possible to accommodate an employee’s alleged disability and sometimes, as in this case, what the employee believes is a disability actually is no disability at all.  Logic in this case prevailed.

Search for a One-Armed Man

The EEOC sued Florida Commercial Security Services for disability discrimination following the firing of a one-armed security guard.  The president of the community association where the guard was assigned wrote to the company, stating “The company is a joke.  You sent me a one-armed security guard.”  The company removed the guard and did not send him to a new assignment.  The EEOC argued that relying on discriminatory customer preferences and stereotypes violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The jury awarded the employee $35,922 in damages.

Lesson learned:  In this case, the employer should not have relied on the discriminatory statement to remove the guard from his position.  Instead, the employer was required to determine whether the guard was able to perform the essential functions of his position with or without accommodation.

Not An Employment Case But Interesting Nonetheless

An Oregon man sued an Idaho police department for monetary damages, alleging that police officers destroyed the mystical powers of his medicine bag.  The man was stopped by police and arrested for drunk driving.  In his lawsuit, he claimed he was persecuted because of his religious beliefs and he wanted damages for the destruction of the mystical powers.  According to the man, the bag provided protection, had been blessed by a medicine woman in 1995, had not been opened since then, and the powers were destroyed when police opened the bag.