A former employee for a Service Employees International Union chapter was awarded $2.63 million by a jury who found he was punished for exposing wrongdoing in the backlog of cases and because he had medical problems.
The Los Angeles Superior Court jury on Wednesday concluded that 64-year-old Talbert Mitchell of Lynwood was the victim of whistleblower retaliation, disability discrimination, medical leave discrimination, wrongful termination in violation of public policy and intentional infliction of emotional distress while working for SEIU Local 721.
The panel also found that the union acted with malice, oppression or fraud, leading to a second phase of trial to begin Monday to determine if Mitchell should be awarded punitive damages.
Lawyers for the union stated in their court papers that no one involved in the decision to fire Mitchell knew he had reported any pileup of unresolved claims. They also denied he was discriminated against because of his health problems or for taking medical leave.
Mitchell was hired by the union in 1997 and was named advocacy manager in 2013, in which his department reviewed complaints by union members. If their cases were not resolved, they were forwarded to the legal department for an arbitration hearing, according to the lawsuit.
In July 2013, Mitchell received an inquiry about a backlog of cases concerning union employees who worked for a Los Angeles County department, the suit stated. Mitchell told the person making the inquiry that his department was not responsible and that the SEIU legal department was failing to conduct timely arbitrations, the suit stated.
“It was later discovered that the legal department falsified records to cover up a backlog of cases,” the suit stated.
Mitchell, who had a heart problem, took medical leave in November 2013 and was “targeted” when he returned, the suit stated. In January 2014, he was passed over for an advocacy director position by a younger person who had less experience, according to the lawsuit. Mitchell, who reported to the new director, was stripped of his office falsely accused of being insubordinate, the suit stated.
Mitchell was denied a 5 percent salary increase he had received in the past and fired in March 2014, the suit stated. He maintained he lost his job in retaliation for reporting that the union local’s legal department failed to timely arbitrate cases and for falsifying records to cover up the accumulation of more than 600 claims.
–City News Service
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