"Heartless" Employer Found Liable - by Alexander Geiger

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May an employer fire an employee less than two weeks after the employee suffered a heart attack, because the company was busy and "had to hire somebody." At least in New York City, the answers appears to be no.(1)

Steven Weissman was employed by Dawn Joy Fashions as a salesman in the summer of 1992. At Christmas time of that year, he received a bonus and was told by his supervisor: "Nobody works as hard as you do to make things happen here." On March 17, 1993 - at the age of thirty-one - Weisman suffered a mild heart attack. While waiting to be admitted to the hospital, he called his supervisor and told her that he had suffered a heart attack and that, according to his doctors, he would be able to return to work in four or five weeks.

On March 29, Weisman received a call from his supervisor and for another manager at Dawn Joy, who informed him that he should consider himself fired as of that day. To ease the blow, the manager also promised to help Weissman find a position at Dawn Joy when he was ready to return to work. Not suffering from an excess of sentimentality, however, Dawn Joy terminated Weissman's health insurance shortly after he was fired.

On April 16, Weissman wrote to the manager, letting him know that he was ready to return to work. The manager telephoned, but was not able to reach Weissman. In the meantime, on April 22, Weissman filed a complaint with the New York City Commission on Human Rights. Then, when Weisman succeeded in reaching the manager, he was told that, on advice of counsel, Dawn Joy had halted any attempt to find Weissman another position.

Eventually, there was a trial in the U. S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. At the trial, Weissman claimed that Dawn Joy violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, the New York State Human Rights Law, and the New York City Human Rights Law by firing him while he was disabled, and by refusing to rehire him in retaliation for his having filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission. Dawn Joy argued that Weissman was not disabled within the meaning of the applicable laws, and that the failure to rehire him was not the result of retaliation. In addition, Dawn Joy argued that Weissman was a bad-tempered and inadequate worker, who was slated to be fired anyway, and that his supervisors had attempted to let him down gently by attributing his firing to his heart attack, rather than his performance.

The jury found for Weissman and awarded him $75,000 for six months of unemployment, $95,000 for mental anguish, and $150,000 in punitive damages. The trial judge then awarded Weissman his attorney's fees and costs, but vacated the award of punitive damages.

On appeal, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the award of economic and compensatory damages and attorney's fees and costs, finding that, under the New York City Human Rights Law, a heart attack was a disability. The appellate court therefore did not need to reach the question of whether a heart attack constitutes a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act or the New York Human Rights Law.

With respect to punitive damages, although the appellate court called it "a close question," it ultimately agreed with the trial judge in not permitting punitive damages in this case. Thus, Weissman ended up with a judgment for $170,000, with interest, plus his attorney's fees and costs.

(1) Weisman v. Dawn Joy Fashions, Inc., 214 F.3d 224 (2d Cir. 2000)

Copyright © 2000 by Alexander Geiger. All Rights Reserved.