Charter Hit With Sextupled Award After Wrongful Firing Trial

By Brandon Lowrey

Law360, Los Angeles (March 2, 2016, 9:14 PM ET) -- A Michigan federal judge on Wednesday more than sextupled a woman's $105,000 award almost a year after jurors found Charter Communications LLC wrongfully terminated her following her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis, piling on attorneys' fees, front pay and liquidated damages. In addition to the jury's verdict, U.S. District Judge Robert J. Jonker awarded plaintiff Carmen Kidd $9,103 in prejudgment interest, $114,103 in liquidated damages, $147,112 in front pay, $280,000 in attorneys' fees and $6,169 in costs, totaling $661,487. The front pay included four years of wages at $36,778 per year.

"There is little doubt that there has been a cloud over plaintiff's employability cast by her termination from Charter and the present litigation," Judge Jonker wrote in his order. "Litigation is stressful for almost everyone, and on this record we know stress actually aggravates Plaintiff's MS, making new employment more difficult to find and maintain, especially before a verdict in her favor on [Family and Medical Leave Act] interference."

Last year, after a three-day trial, the jury found that the cable giant interfered with the employee's rights under the FMLA when it fired her following several absences related to her multiple sclerosis and anxiety diagnoses. However, the jury found that the employee failed to prove her allegations that the company retaliated against her for filing FMLA claims and that it discriminated against her because of a disability.

Kidd, a decadelong employee at Charter's call center in Walker, Michigan, filed the suit in May 2013, after the cable and Internet company terminated her for job abandonment while she was allegedly on FMLA-covered leave. She was entitled to 12 weeks of leave for her serious condition, but the company interfered with that by firing her, according to the suit. A worsening medical condition, later diagnosed as multiple sclerosis, led to Kidd having to repeatedly secure certifications for FMLA several years after she started working in the customer service department at the company, according to the complaint. She also ended up being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder in the wake of some instances of alleged workplace harassment related to her repeated absences, according to the suit. After several intermittent FMLA absences, Kidd secured short-term disability after a recommendation from the company's human resources department, according to the suit. In 2012, Charter fired her for not calling in sick for a few days in a row, in violation of company policy, according to the complaint.

In addition to the interference claim, Kidd's suit also accused the company of retaliation and discrimination. In her suit, she said that she understood that she didn't need to call in sick every day because the company's call-in policy only applied to employees who weren't on an approved leave, such as for disability or FMLA. Charter countered Kidd's claims, saying that they fail because Charter's call-in procedures were uniformly applied, and termination for violation of valid call-in procedures does not run afoul of the FMLA, “as several courts have recently held.” Charter also shot down Kidd's retaliation and discrimination claims, saying that she didn't have a prima facie case in either claim, according to its summary judgment motion. The jury seemed to agree, and found that Kidd had not proven by a preponderance of evidence her retaliation and discrimination claims.

The $105,000 verdict that the jury rendered on the interference claim was for lost wages from the point of termination in 2012 through the trial date. In post-trial motions, Charter sought to overturn the verdict, while Kidd sought additional relief under the FMLA. Judge Jonker rejected Charter's bid for a new trial or judgment as a matter of law, saying the verdict was appropriate and wasn't tainted by flawed jury instructions. Furthermore, the judge slammed the company for causing Kidd stress that exacerbated her ailment. "Defendant's actions had real-world consequences for plaintiff," Judge Jonker wrote in his order. "When Charter woodenly insisted on detailed certifications, it was stressful for Ms. Kidd. Plaintiff and her healthcare providers testified that stress was a major trigger for Ms. Kidd's symptoms."

On Wednesday, Kidd's attorney Carole D. Bos of Bos & Glazier PLC told Law360 that the award was "a just result." "The judge obviously put a lot of thought into his decision, with numerous cites to the trial testimony and to the law," she said. Representatives for Charter did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Kidd is represented by Carole D. Bos and Bradley Glazier of Bos & Glazier PLC. Charter is represented by Littler Mendelson PC. The case is Kidd v. Charter Communications LLC, case number 1:13-cv-00493, in the Western District of Michigan.

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