Alan Schorr’s Employment Case of The Week ending August 2, 2013

Diaz v. Saucon Valley Manor, Inc., 12 cv 0433, (E.D. Pa. – verdict July 26, 2013)


Summary Judgment

Julie Diaz received a successful jury verdict in a claim alleging that she was terminated because of her disability of alcoholism. It is a very rare event for an alcoholic to win a jury verdict in a discrimination case, and therefore easily qualifies this case, Diaz v. Saucon Valley Manor, Inc., as the Case of the Week.

Ms. Diaz was a cook in an assisted living facility from 2007 to 2010. She never received a negative performance evaluation and had no problems with attendance. She alleges that she was once randomly tested for alcohol and tested positive and was sent home with a “verbal written warning”. On March 1, 2010, Ms. Diaz’s father died, and despite being distraught, she went to work on March 2. She was sent home and terminated that day for being intoxicated on the job. She explained that she was distraught, not drunk, and was given the opportunity to be tested. She tested negative and was reinstated.

In June 2010, Ms. Diaz received a positive evaluation along with praise for her performance. In July, Ms. Diaz requested and was granted a leave of absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act so that she could enter an in-patient facility for alcoholism. In August, 30 days after beginning her leave, Ms. Diaz was advised that she was terminated “because she took a leave of absence to enter an in-patient treatment facility”. Ms. Diaz brought suit under the ADA, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, and the FMLA.

The Defendants claimed during the litigation that the reason for the termination was because her supervisor had heard a rumor that Ms. Diaz had been arrested for public drunkenness outside of work, which “flagrantly” violated company policies. During the litigation it was also uncovered that another employee had been arrested outside of work and was not disciplined. Second, the supervisor admitted that the arrest was “not important” to her since it happened outside of work. Finally, the employer was never able to articulate what policies it was that Ms. Diaz had flagrantly violated. Ms. Diaz easily survived a summary judgment and proceeded to trial.

At trial, the jury found in Ms. Diaz’s favor on all causes of action and awarded a stipulated economic damage of $9,296.04. The jury also awarded compensatory damages of $25,000 and punitive damages of $75,000. There will be additional damages possible as a result of post-trial motions, and attorney’s fees will be added by the judge.

I have stated in the past that I am unaware of an alcoholic or drug addict ever winning a verdict in New Jersey (see my blog article of November 2, 2012). So, although this is Pennsylvania, it is really a big deal. Virginia Hardwick, one of the successful plaintiff’s attorneys, credits two focus groups with giving valuable guidance on how to deal with the alcoholism with the jury. As a result, the plaintiff’s case kept the emphasis on Ms. Diaz’s current sobriety and focused on the defendants’ bad acts.

In my opinion, cases involving alcoholics and drug addicts are still the riskiest type of cases to litigate, but it is heartening to finally see a successful verdict.

Plaintiff’s Counsel: Virginia Hardwick, Tiffanie C. Benfer, and Joyce L. Collier, Hardwick Collier, LLC.

Defendants’ Counsel: Alan S. Fellheimer, Fellheimer & Eichen, LLP.

Trial Court Judge: Timothy R. Rice, U.S.M.J.