We’re overjoyed to report that our firm, Workplace Justice Advocates, PLC, has obtained a $1.37M verdict on behalf of our client, Huron Mayo, against her former employer, the Community Development Commission of the County of Los Angeles (“Commission”).
Below, We’ve organized the facts of the case, a breakdown of what happened at trial and a few closing notes on what we learned from the experience. We hope you enjoy reading about the case.
Case Title: Huron Mayo v. Community Development Commission of the County of Los Angeles (LASC Case No. BC486184)
Judge: Hon. Stephen J. Kleifield (LASC Dept. 53)
Attorneys: Robert A. Odell (Plaintiff), Tamara S. Freeze (Plaintiff), Gregory Kennedy (Defendant)
Case Filed: June 7, 2012
Length of Trial: 11 days
Gross Verdict: $1,377,112.20
- Past Economic Damages: $94,037.40
- Future Economic Damages: $188,074.80
- Past Non-Economic Loss: $547,500.00
- Future Non-Economic Loss: $547,500.00
- Punitive Damages: N/A (Defendant Immune per Government Tort Claims Act)
FACTS OF THE CASE:
Huron Mayo was a 13-year employee with the Commission as a resident manager of a low-income apartment complex (“Monica Manor”) in Santa Monica, CA. The Commission owns and operates dozens of low-income housing sites throughout the Los Angeles area and employees 400-500 people who run and manage each site, many as resident managers like Ms. Mayo.
Ms. Mayo began working for the Commission in 1998 and consistently received good performance reviews and awards for her great work as a resident manager. She was a very sweet person and was very well liked by her residents at Monica Manor, who enjoyed her great attitude and her commitment to go the extra mile and make sure their needs were taken care of.
In 2006, after eight years on the job, Ms. Mayo was ordered to report to a new supervisor, Kieshia Nathaniel. For the first three years, Ms. Mayo and her supervisor Ms. Nathaniel got along just fine. Things changed, however, when the topic of Ms. Mayo’s religion came up during the holiday season of 2009.
Ms. Mayo and her husband, Alan, are devout Jehovah’s Witnesses. The two practice their faith privately in all respects, however, as many might already know, Jehovah’s Witnesses, as part of their religious practice, do not partake in any holiday or other religious celebrations such as Chanukah, Ramadan, or Christmas.
In December 2009, Ms. Mayo kindly asked her supervisor, Ms. Nathaniel, if she could be excused from the “annual staff luncheon” if, like years past, the luncheon was actually a staff Christmas party. Ms. Mayo explained her religious faith and asked if the luncheon would have any Christmas undertones like the previous years. Ms. Nathaniel refused to answer her question, so Ms. Mayo informed her she would not be able to attend. Ms. Mayo thanked Ms. Nathaniel for inviting her but added that this was simply a matter of her religious faith, that everyone should have a fun time at the party and to not let her absence dampen the mood for anyone.
It was after this email exchange that everything changed for Ms. Mayo. Ms. Nathaniel’s attitude towards Ms. Mayo immediately shifted, as she became extremely rude, dismissive and unprofessional. Ms. Nathaniel chastised Ms. Mayo for not participating in the holiday events she had planned, making derogatory references to Ms. Mayo’s religion and telling her to “go work the office while all the rest of us are having fun and exchanging gifts without you.”
In addition, Ms. Nathaniel started to significantly increase Ms. Mayo’s workload. Nathaniel assigned her to do “office coverage” at King’s Road (a different worksite nearly 30-minutes away from her Monica Manor) more than anyone else. Before, all resident managers shared the load and covered the King’s Road office on a rotational basis. Now, Ms. Mayo was being run out to the King’s Road office five or six times a month, in addition to being forced to do other employees’ work assignments even though they did not need any help or assistance.
This went on for weeks until, after a particularly nasty staff meeting where Ms. Nathaniel screamed at Ms. Mayo, she took it upon herself to step-forward and report the retaliation and harassment to Ms. Nathaniel’s boss, Arlene Black.
After her report to Ms. Black, however, nothing was done to stop Nathaniel and the retaliation only got worse. This promoted Ms. Mayo to report the harassment to the Commission’s Human Resources Department, who initially rejected her complaint because it came to them through her local union representative. Eventually, Ms. Mayo sent a letter directly to the Director of HR, who only then agreed to conduct an investigation.
Ms. Mayo then had an in-person meeting with HR for nearly two hours where explained everything that had been happening to her. Ms. Mayo supplied HR with over 20 pages of her notes detailing all of the harassment from Nathaniel and included another 20 pages of supporting documents such as emails and monthly office schedules and sign-in sheets to prove that Nathaniel was also increasing her workload.
The HR investigation that followed was a complete failure on all fronts. Of the four (4) witnesses Ms. Mayo identified who could corroborate her claims, none were interviewed. Instead, HR went directly to the harasser, Nathaniel, and simply asked her if she was harassing Ms. Mayo. Nathaniel, who brought Ms. Black with her to the interview, denied any harassment and insisted that Ms. Mayo was still doing office coverage on an equal “rotational basis” like all the other resident managers. With that, HR’s “investigation” was over.
HR then issued a rejection letter to Ms. Mayo, informing her that she had presented “insufficient evidence” to establish claims of harassment and retaliation but that she would still be “protected” under the Commission’s anti-retaliation policy.
Immediately following the investigation, the retaliation from Nathaniel significantly increased. Now furious with Ms. Mayo, Nathaniuel recruited her friend and department Director, Maria Badrakhan, to assist in her efforts to destroy Ms. Mayo’s career.
Soon after, Ms. Badrakhan issued a “formal assignment” to Ms. Mayo, which required her to cover the King’s Road office three days per week for the next 3-4 months. Ms. Mayo was crushed when she realized that she would now be forced forced to work with her harasser on an almost daily basis. Nathaniel was indeed extremely harsh with Ms. Mayo, constantly yelling, nitpicking, threatening her job, and doing everything in her power to make Ms. Mayo’s life more difficult.
On one instance, Nathaniel even forced Ms. Mayo to drive across town in 35 minutes of traffic just to walk a piece of paper upstairs to Nathaniel while she sat at her desk. The retaliation went on for weeks and was only getting worse. With the constant threats and toxic environment, Ms. Mayo’s health was beginning to decline rapidly.
Seeing that HR would do nothing and that management was clearly protecting (and now assisting) Ms. Nathaniel, Ms. Mayo had no choice to but to start using her sick days in order to avoid her harasser. Even then, the stress and anxiety from the fear of losing her job and being evicted from her home began to overwhelm Ms. Mayo. In addition to losing sleep, Ms. Mayo started having severe panic attacks, nightmares and was beginning to lose her hair at an alarming rate.
Eventually, Ms. Mayo’s condition worsened to the point that her physician put her on a medical leave of absence for several weeks. When she finally recuperated and returned, however, Nathaniel and Badrakhan surprised Ms. Mayo a 120-page writeup called “Notice of Commission Expectations.”
In the “Notice,” Ms. Mayo was chastised for dozens of “performance deficiencies” ranging from her “failure to communicate timely and effectively” to the fact that her home office was too messy. The Notice included 37 attachments as “proof,” including CSI-style photos taken of Ms. Mayo’s apartment without her knowledge or permission.
Most importantly, the Notice cited Ms. Mayo for an “unacceptable” use of sick days (taking the time to list 13 separate days she had called-in sick before her medical leave started) and thereby punished Ms. Mayo by limiting he to only one (1) unscheduled sick day per month going forward.
Ms. Mayo, who had never seen anything like this in her 13-year history at the Commission, was shaken badly by the writeup. She was completely distraught and unable to function, leading her doctor put her back on medical leave for several more weeks, which the Commission approved.
When Ms. Mayo returned again in October 2011, Nathaniel informed her that the “assignment” at King’s Road had ended, but that she still needed Ms. Mayo to report to King’s Road on certain days for other matters.
On October 31, Nathaniel sent Ms. Mayo a surprise email ordering her to report to King’s Road that day. Ms. Mayo, however, did not receive the email until several hours later, at which point Nathaniel called and screamed at her for “insubordination.” Ms. Mayo immediately offered to come to King’s Road, but was instructed to stay put by Nathaniel.
Nathaniel then turned-around and reported to her boss, Ms. Badrakhan, that Ms. Mayo was “refusing” to follow her orders and thereby recommended her termination. Based on Nathaniel’s word alone, Badrakhan herself recommended Mayo’s termination to Executive Director Sean Rogan, who immediately approved, no questions asked.
After Ms. Mayo received a notice that she would be officially terminated in two weeks, she frantically wrote a lengthy email complaint to Sean Rogan, explaining the harassment and retaliation due to her religion and how Black, Badrahan and HR were not only allowing it to happen, but also assisting Nathaniel with her campaign of retaliation. Ms. Mayo stated that she had been to the hospital twice due to her worsening medical condition, that Nathaniel and Badrakhan had falsely accused her of performance deficiencies and had now succeeded in getting her fired for false reasons. Ms. Mayo pleaded for Mr. Rogan to please step-in and put a stop to this.
No response was given and Ms. Mayo was subsequently terminated on November 21, 2011. She was given 10 days to gather all of her belongings and vacate her home of 13 years.
During the final hours of her move-out, Nathaniel called another employee and instructed him to follow Ms. Mayo around with Nathaniel on speakerphone while she screamed threats at Ms. Mayo – adding that she would call the sheriff and have Ms. Mayo arrested if her apartment was damaged or if she didn’t leave her key and remote. This was absolutely humiliating for Ms. Mayo.
After this incident, Ms. Mayo’s health continued to decline rapidly. She was subsequently diagnosed with major depressive disorder as well as panic disorder with agoraphobia and put on anti-depression medication, which she is still taking to this day. However, due to her termination, Ms. Mayo also lost her health insurance and could no longer afford to continue any treatment with her therapist.
Defendant Commission insisted that Ms. Mayo’s case had absolutely no merit – that she was lawfully fired for insubordination and that she would assuredly lose her trial and incur further financial ruin. Defendant’s pre-trial offer to compromise was $20,000. Take it or leave it.
During trial, the Commission claimed it was not liable for retaliation or failure to prevent retaliation because Ms. Mayo never complained about religious discrimination (only discrimination in general). Thus, the Commission claimed that its anti-retaliation policy didn’t actually apply to Ms. Mayo since she never identified a protected class or category in her written complaint to HR.
The Commission also contended that HR conducted a “fair and thorough” investigation and that Ms. Mayo was not fired in retaliation for her complaints – rather she was fired for insubordination for refusing to follow the orders of her supervisors, Ms. Nathaniel and Department Director, Ms. Badrakhan. The Defense spent hours upon hours of testimony focused on the “insubordination” incident in order to portray it as the most serious type of violation imaginable and one that required the Commission to terminate Ms. Mayo.
The Commission portrayed Ms. Mayo as lazy, unhelpful, and unwilling to do her assigned work – even going as far as to imply she was incompetent because she could not effectively operate a Xerox machine to scan documents and because she once caused a small oven fire while cooking a Thanksgiving turkey.
With respect to Ms. Mayo’s claims for disability discrimination and failure to prevent disability discrimination, the Commission claimed that it had “no knowledge” of Ms. Mayo’s medical situation or disability; therefore it was impossible for the Commission to discriminate against her on that basis.
A significant part of the Commission’s case-in-chief was also devoted to introducing evidence of the Commission’s extensive charity work in the community such as toy drives, sustainable urban farms, and “back to school night” where free school supplies are given to underprivileged children.
As to our case in chief – we were able to show that Ms. Mayo was a perfectly good employee for 13 years and that she and Ms. Nathaniel got along just fine for three years up until the December 2009 email exchange. In total, we were able to prove that Ms. Mayo complained five times to five different people at the Commission, but never once was the harassment put to a stop.
It was also shown that the Commission was aware of Ms. Mayo’s medical condition resulting from the harassment and retaliation and that Ms. Mayo was clearly treated less-favorably after she took a medical leave protected under the California Family Rights Act – as she was written up and her sick leave rights taken away upon her return from medical leave. The Commission’s decision to take away her sick leave rights was also found to be a separate and direct violation of the CFRA itself.
During her testimony, Ms. Mayo went through the 120-page “Notice of Expectations” and was able to show (by citing to other emails and documents in evidence) that nearly every accusation Ms. Nathaniel had made against her was false, misleading or completely out of context. This was especially true with respect to Nathaniel’s claims that that Ms. Mayo “failed to respond” to nearly 15 emails she had sent (all included as attachments to the writeup). Ms. Mayo was able to cite to other trial exhibits showing showing that she did respond to each and every email, usually within minutes after receiving it.
Additionally, we were able to show that even the truthful statements were still completely unfair grounds for discipline – Nathaniel had stripped Ms. Mayo of her Yardi software access eight months prior to the writeup, but was then disciplining Ms. Mayo for her “failure” to perform tasks which required Yardi access to complete (such as background checks and pet agreements for residents). Ms. Mayo explained how she had been asking Nathaniel (repeatedly) for access to Yardi and/or documents from Yardi so that she could complete those same assignments, but that Nathaniel would simply ignore her every time.
With respect to Ms. Mayo’s use of sick days that were deemed “unacceptable,” we were able to show that each and every sick day listed in the writeup was actually approved by the Commission – specifically, they were approved by Ms. Nathaniel herself. During her testimony, Nathaniel attempted to feign ignorance as to her approval of sick days and had no explanation after she was impeached with documentary evidence proving that she had indeed approved each request.
We were also able to show that the Commission failed to promote Ms. Mayo in retaliation for her complaints to HR. Ms. Mayo, who had worked for the Commission for over a decade, had been performing the duties of a “Resident Manager II” for years, and was encouraged by Sean Rogan to apply for the RMII position in December 2010. In response to Mayo’s request for promotion, Nathaniel and Badrakhan told Ms. Mayo that there was “no such position” at her site in Santa Monica, and that if she wanted to become an RMII, she could transfer and move to a less-desirable site in South Central or East LA.
After termination several months later, we were able to show that the Commission replaced Ms. Mayo with new-hire who had far less experience than her, yet he was given a RM II position at Monica Manor, proving that Nathaniel and Badrakhan’s statements to Ms. Mayo were false.
During her trial testimony, Badrakhan claimed (for the first time ever) that Ms. Mayo was not promoted “because she was doing minimal work” and was thus not qualified for the position of RM II. After pointing-out that this statement was different from her previous deposition testimony, we noted how this new explanation still didn’t make any sense: If Badrakhan truly thought Ms. Mayo was unqualified for the promotion, then why was she even offering her the RMII positions in East and South Central LA? The Commission never addressed this glaring inconsistency.
In closing, we hit hard on the fact that Mayo’s complaints were ignored by so many people who could’ve easily helped her. We also hit hard on the fact that the Commission was constantly “changing the rules of the game” to give themselves an unfair advantage over Ms. Mayo: They didn’t like her complaints, so they changed the rules and conducted a sham investigation. They didn’t want to give her the promotion she deserved, so they striped her of her ability to do higher-level work and changed the location of the job, knowing she could not accept it. Most importantly, we noted how the Commission admitted it had a “progressive discipline policy,” but how they completely threw it out when it came to Ms. Mayo’s alleged “insubordination,” choosing to immediately fire her instead of administering any lesser form of punishment, which has always been their policy and practice with other employees.
We pointed-out how, even now (five years later), after being confronted with overwhelming documentary evidence of discrimination, harassment and retaliation, the Commission was still simply ignoring it, just like they ignored Huron Mayo.
We told the jury that, while the Commission could ignore Ms. Mayo, they could not ignore them. The Commission’s day of judgment was finally here and they could finally be held accountable for what they had done.
In the end, we explained how the Commission didn’t just take Ms. Mayo’s job, they took away her health and well-being. They took away her happiness, her interest and trust in people, as well as her identity and sense of purpose that came with her longtime career. They took away the good memories she deserved to enjoy while working for the Commission as well has her hope of retiring with her husband. What the Commission did to Ms. Mayo’s mind and spirit is something that can never be undone – it’s something that will surely stay with her forever and will rear its ugly head every time she gets rejected from another job opportunity.
We reminded the jury that it had been three years since her termination, yet Ms. Mayo was still unemployed and unable to find a job, even after hundreds upon hundreds of job applications and interviews. The harsh reality is that no employer wants to hire a damaged, clinically-depressed 60-year-old woman who was “fired for insubordination” at her last job.
We couldn’t believe how Ms. Mayo had the strength to continue on after so many rejections, all while still battling deep depression. We told the jury that, somewhere in the back of her mind, Ms. Mayo probably knows that it’s over – she probably knows that, at her age and with the hand she was dealt by the Commission, nobody will ever hire her and she’ll have to struggle to make ends meet for the rest of her life.
We ended with a picture that Ms. Mayo that gave to us before trial. It was a picture of her, wearing a red dress and holding her two grandchildren, ages eight and eleven. The picture looked very old, possibly from the late 80’s or early 90’s and Ms. Mayo appeared to be 20 to 30 years younger. We were shocked to learn that it was actually taken around 2005, just one year before Ms. Nathaniel became her boss.
Ms. Mayo’s physical transformation was undeniable and we’ve never seen her smile like that. Not once. When we first showed this photo to the jury and explained it was from 2005, you could hear an audible gasp. We ended with this picture in closing, pointed to it and stated this is what the Commission truly owes Huron Mayo, but this is something she can never get back.
Defense countered in their closing by stating that Ms. Mayo was simply lazy, that she just wanted to sit in her apartment all day and not work and that this entire case was about money and nothing else. They explained that the decision to fire Ms. Mayo as simply the “sound business judgment” of Maria Badrakhan, who as the “conductor of the orchestra,” had to make sure everyone was working together in harmony, thus justifying her decision to eliminate the employees who were not performing well.
The Commission focused only on Ms. Mayo’s written complaint to HR, stating how the word “religion” was not present in her notes and how that was somehow fatal to her entire case.
In rebuttal, we reiterated how the Commission was still ignoring evidence – they completely ignored the other four complaints which did include allegations of religious discrimination. The Commission also completely ignored the fact that Ms. Mayo personally informed HR of the religious discrimination during their interview and also included the December 2009 emails in the supporting documents she submitted.
After the close of evidence, the jury deliberated for approximately six hours, finally reaching a verdict at 4:00 pm on November 6th.
The jury found in favor of Ms. Mayo (11 to 1) on all causes of action except for Violation of CFRA, where the jury was unanimous in favor of Ms. Mayo.
We learned a lot from this experience. We learned that we, as young attorneys, do indeed have the power to advocate effectively for our clients and win big at trial.
Seeing as how the Defense viewed the case (and viewed us), the possibility of losing probably never even occurred them, let alone the threat of a large verdict, especially considering that public entities are immune from punitive damages as a matter of law.
In the end, we were immensely relieved that the jury could see past all the distractions and misleading arguments launched by the Defense in this case, as there were many. We learned that, as long as you properly arm the jury with good evidence and proper instruction on the law, they will find justice for your client.