Tag Archives: retaliation

Favorite Firing: When Will a Sympathetic Plaintiff Nevertheless Lose His Case?


club-2492011_640Being a judge is often a difficult role. In one recent case, Sepúlveda-Vargas v. Caribbean Restaurants, LLC (1st Cir. April 30, 2018), the First Circuit Court of Appeals clearly struggled with how the strict language of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) impacted a sympathetic plaintiff. The first paragraph of the Court’s opinion contains the statement:

“No matter how sympathetic the plaintiff or how harrowing his plights, the law is the law and sometimes it’s just not on his side.”

The Facts: Plaintiff Victor A. Sepúlveda-Vargas was an assistant manager for a Burger King franchise owned by defendant Caribbean Restaurants, LLC, in Puerto Rico. Mr. Sepúlveda-Vargas was attacked at gunpoint one day while making a bank deposit for his employer, and thereafter suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression.

Plaintiff requested a transfer to a restaurant in an area less subject to crime and also requested a fixed work schedule (rather than the rotating shift required for all assistant managers at Caribbean Restaurants). His managers accommodated plaintiff’s request for a while, but later determined they could not continue to accommodate the requests. Thereafter, Mr. Sepúlveda-Vargas resigned. Thus, this is technically a constructive discharge case, rather than a firing.

The District Court concluded that Mr. Sepúlveda-Vargas was not a qualified individual under the ADA, and therefore did not need to be accommodated. The lower court also concluded that the defendant employer had not retaliated against the plaintiff to create a hostile work environment justifying his resignation. As a result of these findings, the District Court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

Specifically, the District Court found that working rotating shifts was an essential function of the assistant manager job with Caribbean, and, since Mr. Sepúlveda-Vargas could not work rotating shifts, he could not perform the essential functions of the job and was therefore not a qualified individual under the ADA.

The District Court recognized that even if the plaintiff was not a qualified individual under the ADA, the employer was obligated by law not to retaliate against the plaintiff for raising an ADA claim. Then the District Court addressed a long list of alleged retaliatory acts. The District Court stated that these did not rise to the level of actionable behavior by the employer.

A panel of three judges on the First Circuit looked at the alleged retaliatory behavior de novo, but agreed with the lower court’s findings. Thus, Mr. Sepúlveda-Vargas did not state a viable claim against Caribbean Restaurants, and the First Circuit affirmed the District Court’s ruling against Mr. Sepúlveda-Vargas.

The Moral: To be frank, if the District Court or Circuit Court had really wanted to, I think the judges could have ruled in Mr. Sepúlveda-Vargas’s favor, at least on the retaliation claim. Among the allegations made were that Mr. Sepúlveda-Vargas was scolded for requesting an accommodation, that he was forced to drop his pants to prove to his manager that he had a skin condition, and that he was called a “cry-baby” several times by his supervisors, . . .

While the District and Circuit judges in this case explained their rationale for not finding these allegations to amount to an actionable case for retaliation, other judges have found retaliation on facts no worse than those Mr. Sepúlveda-Vargas alleged.

From an employer’s perspective, it is heartening to see both a trial court and an appellate court follow the statutory language of the ADA in finding that an employee has not stated a cause of action. The judges gave the employer great deference in designing the job requirements for its assistant managers. It is also heartening to see the judges parse through allegations of retaliation and conclude that the alleged behavior was insufficient to support a constructive discharge case.

In this case, the First Circuit stated:

“Not all retaliatory actions, however, suffice to meet the ADA’s anti-retaliation provision. Rather, ‘a plaintiff must show that a reasonable employee would have found the challenged action materially adverse, which in this context means it well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.’ [citations omitted] Indeed, we have explained that ‘[f]or retaliatory action to be material, it must produce “a significant, not trivial harm,”’ [citations omitted], and that ‘actions like “petty slights, minor annoyances, and simple lack of good manners will not [normally] create such deterrence.”‘ [citations omitted]

But these cases often boil down to questions of fact. The decision could go either way, depending on the decision-maker. So this case is a strong reminder that employers should (1) engage in a respectful dialogue with an employee who requests an accommodation and (2) avoid retaliatory behavior after the request for an accommodation is made, whether it is accepted or denied.

When have you seen an employer prevail in a retaliation claim?

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Favorite Firing: Not All Objections to an Employer’s Practices Are “Protected Activity”


 

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Photograph by Honza Soukup on Flickr

Today’s favorite firing case comes from California, which labor and employment attorneys know is a pro-plaintiff venue. But in Dinslage v. City and County of San Francisco, et al, the employer won a lawsuit because the plaintiff could not proof a prima facie case of retaliation. The case involved the distinction between retaliation for opposing discriminatory employment practices and for opposing other allegedly discriminatory practices of the employer (in this case, practices directed at the public).

 

The Facts: David Dinslage worked for the Recreation and Parks Department in San Francisco for over thirty years until he was laid off during a reduction in force. His duties included overseeing programs for adults and children with disabilities. His group in the Department organized special events for people with disabilities.

During the last few years that Dinslage worked at the Department, his managers made changes to the programs he handled. The primary change was to shift the focus from providing separate, segregated programs to people with disabilities to ensuring all programs were accessible, so that the programs were more inclusive, which the Department believed was the current “best practice” in providing services to the disabled. Therefore, many of the segregated special events Dinslage had organized were eliminated.

In 2009-2010, the Department was reorganized to focus more on inclusion, and also to meet budget reductions and eliminate some staff. Dinslage disagreed with the program changes and ultimately refused to accept and implement the changes his superiors envisioned, resulting in him receiving a lower performance rating.

When his position was eliminated, Dinslage applied for a new position in the Department, but he was not selected. After his forced retirement, he and other employees sued San Francisco.

Dinslage claimed age discrimination, retaliation, and harassment in violation of the FEHA (Cal. Gov. Code §12940, subds. (a), (h), and (j)). He alleged his termination and other adverse actions were based on his age. He also claimed retaliation and harassment based on his age and in retaliation for his objections to the Department’s changes in programs for people with disabilities.

The Moral: The Department and the City won their motion for summary judgment in the Superior Court, and Dinslage appealed. The California Court of Appeals upheld the summary judgment for defendants on both the age discrimination and the retaliation claims. On the retaliation claim, the Court of Appeals held that plaintiff failed to make out a prima facie case, because his opposition to the changes in how the Department offered programs for the disabled was not directed at an unlawful employment practice, and therefore could not support a claim of retaliation.

As quoted in the Court of Appeals opinion, the Superior Court found:

“Defendants have met their burden to show that Plaintiff did not engage in protected activity under the FEHA,” because the “evidence shows that Plaintiff did not speak out against the Defendants for engaging in discriminatory conduct directed at Defendants’ employees.” The court found Dinslage’s evidence “only shows that [he] spoke in public forums regarding his concern that the . . . Department’s reorganization would cause layoffs and the potential negative effects the reorganization would have on members of the public who have disabilities.”

Thus, the trial court found Dinslage had failed to establish the first element of his retaliation claim, because he had not shown he had engaged in protected activity under the FEHA.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court that Dinslage had not stated a prima facie case of retaliation. The appellate court stated:

“For protection under the ‘opposition clause,’ an employee must have opposed an employment practice made unlawful by the statute.”

The employee can state a claim for retaliation

“not only when the employee opposes conduct that ultimately is determined to be unlawfully discriminatory under the FEHA, but also when the employee opposes conduct that the employee reasonably and in good faith believes to be discriminatory, whether or not the challenged conduct is ultimately found to violate the FEHA.”

The employee’s belief must be both subjectively and objectively reasonable.

But the Court of Appeals found that Dinslage’s objections to what he considered to be unwise and/or improper actions by the Department were insufficient to allege that he had opposed activity protected under FEHA. The Court of Appeals cited cases involving plaintiffs who had complained about police conduct against the general public and about their employer’s environmental practices. Because these were not employment practices, objections to such practices could not state a claim under FEHA.

Thus, the Court of Appeals said,

“Neither the ‘unlawful practice’ nor the ‘good faith belief’ requirement is satisfied where the practice complained of was not directed at employees but, instead, was directed to individuals who are not in an employment relationship with the defendant.” (citing Taneus v. Brookhaven Memorial Hosp. Medical Center (E.D.N.Y. 2000)).

The Court held that Dinslage could not

“reasonably have believed his actions constituted protected activity, because there is no dispute his opposition was not directed at the Department’s employment practices.”

This case is good news for employers. It clarifies both that the only activities that can support a claim for retaliation under FEHA are objections to employment-related practices, that the plaintiff must reasonably believe that he or she is opposing a discriminatory practice under FEHA, and that the plaintiff’s belief must be both subjectively and objectively reasonable.

Have you ever dealt with a retaliation claim where the Dinslage holding might be helpful?

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Favorite Firing: When a Customer Harasses an Employee


adult-15814_1280The usual adage in American businesses is “the customer is always right.” And usually that is true. I’ve posted on a few occasions about the need for many organizations to improve their customer service. But it isn’t always true. Sometimes the customer is dead wrong. Today’s “favorite firing” is about a case where the customer was wrong, and then an employee alleged she was treated improperly when she complained about the customer’s behavior. After the alleged retaliation, the employee quit. So strictly speaking, this is a constructive discharge case, not a firing.

The Facts: In Prager v. Joyce Honda, Inc. (Aug. 22, 2016), Nicole Prager, a 20-year-old receptionist at the Joyce Honda dealership, complained to her managers that a high-profile customer pulled on her shirt and revealed her bra. There was no doubt as to what had happened, because the incident was caught on the dealership’s surveillance tape.

Her managers discouraged her from filing charges against the customer because he was a really good customer who had purchased 20 cars over the years and regularly had his cars serviced at the dealership. Despite her managers’ cautions, Ms. Prager did file charges. In fact, once she made the decision to file, the dealership managers called the police and provided an office at the dealership where she could talk to the police. (Later, the customer pleaded guilty to offensive touching and paid a fine.)

After she filed the charges, Ms. Prager alleges that some of her her co-workers began behaving coldly toward her. In addition, she received two written warnings for leaving work early on two occasions. One of these occasions occurred prior to filing the complaint against the customer and the other was an incident after she filed the charges. She objected to the reprimands, saying they were retaliatory and that she had left work early before without being disciplined. Her managers said they reprimanded her because she had not communicated about her leaving early on these occasions, as she had in the past. Nevertheless, the employer offered to rescind the disciplinary warnings, but Ms. Prager resigned instead.

In her lawsuit claiming retaliation and constructive discharge, Ms. Prager alleged that the dealership had become a hostile workplace environment for her, which justified her resignation. The trial court dismissed Ms. Prager’s lawsuit, saying that employers were not responsible for the conduct of customers in the workplace. Ms. Prager appealed.

The Appellate Division in the New Jersey courts also rejected her complaint, although the Appellate Division said that filing a police report against the employer’s customer was a protected act. However, though she could state a claim for retaliation, she had not sufficiently alleged a retaliatory consequence in her complaint—she had resigned immediately after receiving the reprimand and the dealership had offered to make the reprimands go away. The court said

“no reasonable juror could find that conduct ‘so intolerable that a reasonable person would be forced to resign rather than continue to endure it.’”

The Moral: Any complaint of harassing behavior by an employee should be taken seriously. And once an employee complains, the employer must be careful not to retaliate. Those are givens. Moreover, managers should be supportive of employees who complain and who decide to take their complaints to higher authorities, whether those authorities be internal company investigators, administrative agencies, or external law enforcement.

In this case, reading the Appellate Division’s opinion is instructive. It is clear from what the court says that part of the problem was that this employee was young and inexperienced in dealing with harassment and the follow-up complaint process. Her managers did not help the situation—they did pressure Ms. Prager not to complain about a valued customer, though they ultimately did support her. This case is a good reminder that we take our employees as they are, and must adapt our responses in some respects to their unique circumstances.

The timing of the warnings to Ms. Prager was unfortunate at best, and possibly retaliatory, though the court held that the two warnings in this situation were not sufficiently retaliatory to support constructive discharge. The management rationale for the warnings—that Ms. Prager was not communicating with them—probably should have been dealt with through a verbal discussion, at least initially, saving the heavier discipline of a written warning for a later occasion more distant from the harassment.

Nevertheless, there is good news for employers in this case, namely that constructive discharge is difficult to prove. If managers show an ongoing willingness to work with an employee in reasonable ways, it will be hard for the employee to prove that the workplace is so intolerable that he or she must resign. While any disciplinary action against an employee who has complained of discrimination or harassment should be carefully considered, it is appropriate to hold employees accountable for their performance and for following reasonable company policies.

When have you dealt with allegations of constructive discharge?

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Favorite Firing: Too Soon and Too Late—Two Examples of Potential Retaliation


MP900302921Retaliation charges now make up the most common type of discrimination charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the number of retaliation charges grew at 5% in fiscal year 2015. The situation is no better with complaints filed with civil rights agencies at the state and local levels.

Two recent cases illustrate the problems employers face managing employees who might file a retaliation claim. Adverse actions against an employee at any time after the charge is filed—whether too soon or too late—can both land an employer in hot water.

Baker v. KCI Technologies, Inc., (S.D. Ind., January 27, 2016):

The Facts: In the first case I’m profiling, a female employee, Alaina Baker, worked as an Environmental Scientist for KCI Technologies. After she complained internally about compensation, recognition, and promotional issues, Ms. Baker filed a charge of sex discrimination with the Indiana Civil Rights Commission. The company then investigated whether her concerns could be resolved to enable her to work as an effective manager. During the investigation, Ms. Baker told the Vice-President of Human Resources that she was not comfortable in her current situation and did not want to remain with KCI Technologies if nothing was going to change.

The company offered Ms. Baker the choice of a mentor or a severance package. Ms. Baker indicated that she didn’t think a mentor would help. Her employer then offered her another severance package, but she rejected that offer as well. KCI Technologies fired Ms. Baker, even though she had no record of job performance or disciplinary issues, because the company decided her antagonistic relationship with her supervisor would probably harm the business’s relationships with its customers. Ms. Baker then filed a claim for retaliatory discharge.

The employer filed a motion for summary judgment, which the District Court denied. The Court found that “a causal connection might very well exist between the filing of Ms. Baker’s discrimination complaint and her termination a mere three months later.” It should be noted that this decision was not a determination on the merits, and it is possible the employer will ultimately prevail, but the facts were sufficient to withstand a motion for summary judgment.

The Moral: It appears that KCI Technologies acted too soon. The company might have been better served to see how Ms. Baker performed over time. She might have caused problems with customers (their fear), but she might not have. By acting as precipitously as it did, the employer opened itself up to increased risk in the litigation.

Of course, every employer will have to weigh for itself whether acting to avoid harm in the workplace is more or less costly than the cost of litigation.

Johnson v. Lemonds, (M.D.N.C., February 4, 2016):

The Facts: In the second case, Paula Johnson had filed claims of age, disability, and genetic information discrimination against her former employer, Earth Angels, which was owned by Sandra Lemonds. Ms. Johnson had worked as a home health worker for Earth Angels.

Many months later, but while these claims of discrimination were still pending, Ms. Lemonds contacted Ms. Johnson’s subsequent employer, Kesler Home Care Services. She also visited the home of the new client for whom Ms. Johnson provided care. Ms. Johnson alleged that Ms. Lemonds’s contacts were retaliatory in nature, and that they caused the client to fire her—which led Kesler to fire her, and Kesler also fired her fiance and daughter who also worked for Kesler.

Defendant Lemonds filed a motion to dismiss based on insufficiency of the facts stated in the complaint. The federal magistrate overruled the motion. Based on what Ms. Johnson had alleged, the magistrate found that she had adequately stated a possibility that the underlying complaints of discrimination had caused the calls and visits to Ms. Johnson’s new employer and her later termination by Kesler.

Although a long delay between protected activity and adverse action tends to negate the inference of discrimination, the Court did not find that to be true in this case. The fact that seven months had passed since Ms. Johnson had filed her original complaints did not preclude a finding of retaliation. In fact, Ms. Johnson alleged that Ms. Lemonds took the earliest opportunity she could to retaliate.

Once again, the defendant has not lost everything, because this ruling was on a motion to dismiss, not on the merits. But the defendant faces a lengthy lawsuit.

The Moral: In this case, the defendant’s delay in acting for several months post-filing of the discrimination complaint was insufficient to rebut a retaliation claim. Waiting lengthy periods may negate an inference of discrimination, but it will not overcome it as a matter of law.

Putting it all together:

Defendants face a tricky situation in managing an employee once a claim of discrimination is filed. Any subsequent adverse action—regardless of the timing—increases the risk of a retaliation claim.

An employer is best served by demonstrating extreme patience in documenting an employee’s performance issues, by insuring that there are comparable employees treated the same as the plaintiff, and by providing the employee with multiple opportunities to improve (unless the situation poses a danger to the employee or others).

How have you managed your way through possible retaliation claims?

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Favorite Firing: Always Assume an Employee Can State A Claim Against an Employer


This “favorite firing” story isn’t about some salacious or quirky set of facts. It involves whistleblowing under the Dodd-Frank Act—hardly a sexy topic. But the situation serves as a good reminder that there is always some reason that an employee can sue his or her employer. Thus, employers need to have good reasons for taking action against employees, and they need to stand ready to justify what they have done.

whistle-clip-art-176817The Facts: Daniel Berman was fired from his position as finance director of Neo@Ogilvy LLC (“Neo”) in April 2013, after working there for two-and-a-half years. He was responsible for Neo’s financial reporting and compliance functions. He claimed that he discovered various fraudulent accounting practices and that he had reported these violations to others within the company. He alleged that a senior officer got angry at his reports and that as a result he was fired. After his termination Mr. Berman reported his allegations to the parent company’s Audit Committee, and later provided information to the SEC, but prior to the termination he had only reported the potential fraud internally.

A few months later, Berman sued Neo, alleging that he had been discharged in violation of the whistleblower protection provisions of section 21F of Dodd–Frank and in breach of his employment contract. See Berman v. Neo@Olgivy LLC, et al (2d Cir. Sept. 10, 2015).

The legal question in the case became whether Mr. Berman was a whistleblower and could therefore state a cause of action against Neo and its parent company. Under Section 21F(h) of the Exchange Act, which was added in the Dodd–Frank Act, employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees for reporting violations of the Exchange Act. Subsection 21F(a)(6) defines “whistleblower” to mean “any individual who provides “information relating to a violation of the securities laws to the [SEC].”

However, subdivision (iii) of subsection 21F(h)(1)(A)(iii) does not limit protection to those who report wrongdoing to the SEC. This subdivision (iii) expands the protections of Dodd–Frank to include the whistleblower protection provisions of Sarbanes–Oxley, and those provisions, which contemplate an employee reporting violations internally, do not require reporting violations to the SEC.

Since Mr. Berman did not report any potential violations to the SEC until after his discharge, the court had to decide whether his internal reports could give rise to a cause of action against Neo.

Neo and its parent company filed a motion to dismiss, and the District Court granted that motion, dismissing the Dodd-Frank claims, because Mr. Berman had not reported any potential violations to the SEC until after his discharge. (His breach of contract claim was also dismissed.)

Mr. Berman appealed the dismissal of the Dodd-Frank claims. After an extensive analysis of the tension between the two sub-sections of the Exchange Act created in the Dodd-Frank Act, the Second Circuit reversed and reinstated these claims.

The Moral: The specifics of the Second Circuit’s analysis are less interesting than the end result—this employee’s cause of action against his employer survived. Of course, the facts in the case remain to be proven. Neo will have an opportunity to show that he was not fired because he raised the possibility of fraudulent accounting practices to others within the company. But in the meantime, Neo will have to devote significant legal expenses and management time to defending a lawsuit.

I would hope that Neo had not relied on competing definitions of “whistleblower” in making the decision to discharge Mr. Berman. I would hope there is more to the story than what was revealed in the parties’ briefs on a motion to dismiss. The moral is that employee lawsuits can usually survive a motion to dismiss, and employers need to have solid facts to support their termination of employees. And the case is a reminder that retaliation claims are difficult to overcome.

When have you been surprised by a claim that an employee brought against his or her employer?

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Favorite Firing: Termination for Admitting Violation of Employer Policy Is Retaliation Under FLSA


policeman-146561_640I’ve mentioned before that retaliatory discharge claims under Title VII are hard to defend, but retaliation claims are equally problematic under other employment statutes. In Avila v. Los Angeles Police Dep’t, (9th Cir. 2014), a police officer alleged he was fired for testifying in a co-worker’s lawsuit claiming non-payment of overtime wages in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The Facts: Leonard Avila was a police officer for the Los Angeles Police Department. He testified in another officer’s lawsuit alleging unpaid overtime wages and admitted he had frequently worked through his lunch break without reporting the extra hours, in violation of the LAPD’s policy.

Shortly thereafter, Officer Avila was discharged for insubordination. The insubordination? His failure to claim overtime wages in violation of department policy.

The LAPD Board of Rights that recommended Officer Avila’s termination found:

“Prior to 2008, you [Officer Avila], while on duty, were insubordinate to the department when you failed to submit requests for compensation for overtime that you had worked, as directed through department publications.”

The Ninth Circuit opinion states the facts as follows:

“Leonard Avila, a police officer, periodically worked through his lunch break but did not claim overtime. According to his commanding officer, Avila was a model officer. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), however, deemed Avila insubordinate for not claiming overtime and fired him.

“Not coincidentally, that termination occurred only after Avila had testified in a Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) lawsuit brought by fellow officer, Edward Maciel, who sought overtime pay for working through his lunch hours. Avila then brought this action, claiming that he was fired in retaliation for testifying, in violation of the FLSA antiretaliation provision, 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3). The evidence at trial was that the only officers disciplined for not claiming overtime were those who testified against the LAPD in the Maciel suit, notwithstanding uncontested evidence that the practice was widespread in the LAPD.”

The Moral: As the dissenting opinion in Avila stated, “retaliation claims based on federal statutes are increasingly a major part of employment litigation in federal courts.” That is probably the single biggest moral to be taken from this case.

The dissent focused on the fact that Officer Avila and the other officers discharged after their testimony admitted violating department policy in that testimony:

“the only officers singled out for discipline were those who testified at the Maciel action and who admitted under oath that for years they knowingly and repeatedly violated policies that they were specifically told would subject them to termination.” [emphasis in original]

The dissent argued that employees should not be immunized from the consequences of their admissions, but the majority upheld the jury verdict in favor of Officer Avila. The case focused primarily on jury instructions, and, finding no error in the instructions, the majority affirmed.

So another moral from this case is that employers cannot necessarily rely on admissions of wrongdoing by employees, if those admissions are made during lawsuits against their employer. Employers must be careful when seeking to discharge any employee who has raised any type of employment claim or participated in any way in another employee’s claim. As I’ve said before, the retaliation claims are often more difficult to defend than the underlying complaint, whether it be for illegal employment discrimination, unpaid wages, worker’s compensation, or any other employment action.

The Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo law firm, which represents employers, wrote on its blog:

“This decision is important as the Court of Appeals’ analysis suggests that an employer is restricted from exclusively using information obtained from an employee’s protected activity for purposes of initiating an adverse action.  Instead, the Court of Appeals focused on the fact that the City did not have other independent evidence of alleged wrongdoing beyond Avila’s protected activity when terminating his employment to avoid liability under the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision. Ultimately, the Court of Appeals left open the question as to whether an employer is strictly forbidden from using any information of employee wrongdoing that is obtained during testimony in another lawsuit.”

And as Branigan Robertson, a plaintiff’s attorney, said on his blog:

“Avila v. Los Angeles Police Department is a win for employees as it shows employers that they need to be extremely careful when firing someone for complaining or being part of a legal proceeding against them.”

In my opinion, the LAPD would have been wiser to have documented a warning to Officer Avila and the others who admitted violating department policy and told them that any future violations would be grounds for termination.

Perhaps that shouldn’t be the case, but this was an expensive lesson for the department. Officer Avila received $50,000 in liquidated damages, and his attorneys were awarded $579,400 in attorney’s fees.

What do you think—should LAPD have lost this case?

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