Late in 2017, a Norfolk County Superior Court jury awarded a 65-year-old plaintiff, James Beresford, $1.2 million in an age discrimination lawsuit against his former employer, Charles River Automotive (“CRA”) and CRA’s general manager Mark Gentile. The jury verdict awarded Beresford $317,780 in back pay, $285,000 in front pay, and $602,780 in punitive damages.
In July 1988, Beresford began working as a mechanic at YCN Transportation in Norwood, Massachusetts. Beresford then became the service manager and head mechanic a short time after he was hired. The family owned garage underwent multiple changes in ownership in the close to 30 years Beresford worked there. In August 2013, Marcou Transportation bought the garage and began operating as part of CRA, an affiliate of Marcou. Beresford remained as head mechanic and reported to Gentile. Gentile worked at another location but would occasionally visit the Norwood garage.
As part of upgrading its operations, CRA introduced a vehicle maintenance software solution called Dossier, which was supposed to help manage repair services more effectively. Beresford resisted the automation, and argued that paper record-keeping was more reliable. Gentile and Beresford agreed to give the computer related tasks to non-mechanic employees. Evidence presented at trial did not show that the garage suffered any harm from Beresford not using Dossier. Shortly thereafter, CRA abruptly terminated Beresford, age 61 at the time and after 27 years of service, because of poor performance and insubordination. However, the defendants failed to provide any documentary evidence of performance issues.
The case went to trial and the jury awarded the seven-figure verdict. It is unclear why the jury awarded such a large amount of punitive damages. It may be attributable to Beresford’s long history with the company, lack of proof of discipline, Gentile calling Beresford an “old timer,” the timing of his termination, and/or the likability of Beresford as a witness. What’s interesting about this case is that it is not far off from many similar fact patterns that employment lawyers see in many other cases, where the damages awarded might be forecasted to be much less. Indeed, there does not appear to be any remarkable or particularly shocking evidence in the Beresford case that might explain the huge, $1.2 million-dollar verdict.
Lessons for employees:
This case illustrates that even if extreme, egregious facts are missing, employees who suffer discrimination in connection with a termination are entitled to whatever the jury believes is fair and just under the circumstances. If you believe that you are suffering discrimination based on age or some other protected category under the law (e.g., sex, race, religion, national origin, disability, etc.), be sure to keep track of all potential evidence, which includes taking notes of mistreatment, being aware of who may have witnessed the mistreatment, keeping copies of communications, etc. Seek legal advice early, as there may be steps you can take before being terminated that could save your job, or at least put you in a better position to succeed in a subsequent case against the former employer.
Lessons for Employers:
The Beresford case provides a salient example of why proceeding to trial on employment discrimination cases is so very risky for employers. In my experience, juries are naturally slanted against employers and very willing to believe that an employer wronged a former employee. Certainly, juries can be convinced that the employer is in the right; but many jurors have personal experience with being wronged by an employer. The Beresford case provides an example of why terminating a long-time and loyal employee without any accompanying documentation creates risk. While it is true that Massachusetts is an “at will” employment state (meaning employers or employees can end the employment relationship at any time and for any reason, or no reason at all, but not for an unlawful reason), juries expect employers to have documentation to support their positions. This documentation process is most frequently omitted by smaller, closely-held, and family-owned businesses without a professional HR manager. In many cases, these smaller and closely-held organizations can benefit by involving a lawyer early in the discipline and decision-making process. Although calling a lawyer early does involve incurring some additional costs, small companies should consider avoiding being “penny-wise and pound foolish” when it comes to matters such as terminating a 27-year employee.