FloridaA federal jury in Florida has awarded $4.5 million against an auto dealer for claims of disability discrimination under the Florida Civil Rights Act (FCRA). Axel v. Fields Motorcars of Florida, Inc., No. 8:15-cv-893-17JSS (M.D. Fla. Feb. 22, 2017). The verdict consisted of $680,000 in lost wages and benefits, $600,000 for emotional pain and mental anguish, and $3,220,220 in punitive damages. The jury found the employer discriminated against Michael Fields after he returned from a medical absence for treatment of kidney cancer. The jury rejected the plaintiff’s claims of age discrimination pursuant to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

Axel was employed by Fields Motorcars of Florida, Inc. for approximately 10 years. According to court records, he had not received any disciplinary or corrective action in that time. To the contrary, he had received awards for his performance. After Fields was diagnosed with kidney cancer, he underwent experimental treatment and was able to return to work where he was capable of performing all of his duties. Axel further claimed that he was on pace to have the most productive year at Fields. However, he was repeatedly passed up for promotions, and was demoted and terminated for failure to follow company policies and processes.

In its decision to terminate Axel, the employer relied upon a letter that dated back to the beginning of his employment, approximately 10 years earlier. A Vice President and General Manager claimed that Axel had forged a document that provided his son access to auto auctions without authorization. He performed no independent investigation and never spoke to Axel prior to his termination. Axel claimed that while he signed the letter, he had authorization to do so from management. There was no suggestion that Axel’s son improperly used his authority to purchase cars on behalf of Fields.

This case highlights the importance of thorough investigations by management prior terminations, especially with respect to employees with a protected status or disability and those who bring an internal complaint of discrimination. When a company lacks the expertise to conduct an investigation on its own and fails to enlist assistance, it can pay the price at trial.

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Photo of Martin W. Aron Martin W. Aron

Martin W. Aron is a Principal and Litigation Manager of the Morristown, New Jersey, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. For over 30 years, he has represented employers in all facets of labor and employment matters.

Mr. Aron has represented employers in cases involving…

Martin W. Aron is a Principal and Litigation Manager of the Morristown, New Jersey, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. For over 30 years, he has represented employers in all facets of labor and employment matters.

Mr. Aron has represented employers in cases involving claims of discrimination on the basis of age, sex, sexual harassment, race, national origin, religion, sexual orientation and disability. He is also experienced in handling claims that arise under various state and federal statutes involving diverse issues such as family medical leave, whistleblowing, wage and hour regulation, unlawful competition, violation of restrictive covenants and theft of trade secrets.

Prior to joining Jackson Lewis, Mr. Aron was Co-Chair of the Labor & Employment Group for an Am Law 100 law firm.

Mr. Aron regularly litigates in state and federal courts, administrative agencies and arbitration forums for both unionized and non-union employers. He is recognized by his peers as an experienced trial attorney, having achieved the designation of Certified Civil Trial Lawyer from the New Jersey Supreme Court. Mr. Aron is a frequent lecturer on labor and employment issues. He is also certified as a Senior Professional of Human Resources (SPHR).

Mr. Aron advises both Fortune 100 companies with national and international operations as well as colleges, universities and emerging companies. He advises employers in a wide range of industries, including telecommunications, insurance, pharmaceuticals, retail, manufacturing, as well as nonprofit institutions.