Father-Daughter Dance Against Connecticut Wedding Caterer/Event Venue Results in Significant Personal Liability to Business Owners
As we near Father's Day, Ferguson v. Fairfield Caterers, Inc., serves as an appropriate case to remind employers of the many facets of a retaliation claim—including the personal liability that attaches. Kelli Ferguson and her father worked for Defendant until early 2010. Ferguson's father, Kevin Heslin managed wedding sales and promotions and Ms. Ferguson, who had worked for Defendant for over two decades and had worked her way up from part-time coat check attendant, was the general manager of the operations—overseeing her father, among other employees. In late 2009, Defendant's ownership met with Ms. Ferguson and recommended that it was time for Mr. Heslin to retire because he was "too old" and brides could not relate to him. Mr. Heslin's employment with the company terminated in January 2010, on his 71st birthday, and he soon after filed a complaint with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, alleging his termination was based on his age in violation of law.
In response, Defendant's owners asked Ms. Ferguson to convince her father to drop the complaint and "ominously warned that her refusal could carry consequences." Defendant hired a private investigator in connection with Mr. Heslin's claim and ultimately learned that Mr. Heslin and Ms. Ferguson had frequently received "kickbacks" from independent wedding vendors who furnished services at Defendant's venues, in violation of company policy and the law. As a result, Defendant fired Ms. Ferguson. Ms. Ferguson sued alleging a plethora of causes of action, including retaliation based on her father's complaint.
After a jury trial, Plaintiff was awarded $288,235.88 in back pay damages, not from the company Defendants, but from the ownership in their individual capacity. Under Connecticut's employment discrimination statute, any person, not just corporate employers, can be liable for employment discrimination. While the ownership argued that only a corporate employer can have authority to discharge an individual from employment, the court noted that the language of the statute would provide liability for the discrimination under an aiding and abetting theory. The Court noted, "Here, the evidence was abundantly clear that it was Royce and Montague who made the decision to terminate plaintiff's employment, and there is no merit to their claim that they are somehow shielded from liability by the presence of the corporate defendant employers in this case." In addition to the $288,235.88 in individual liability, the court awarded over $250,000 to Plaintiff's counsel in attorneys fees and costs.
This case serves as a helpful reminder of the far-reaching effects of the anti-retaliation provisions under both state and federal law, as well as a reminder that certain state's fair employment practices acts include individual liability provisions that could have devastating effects on owners and managers. Contact a member of Verrill Dana's Labor & Employment Practice Group to discuss the extent of personal liability in your state.