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When duty calls: Don’t interfere with employees’ jury duty

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in Employment Law,Firing,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Performance Reviews

THE LAW: Most states have laws protecting workers who are called to serve on juries. Employers are essentially barred from retaliating against employees in any way because they fulfill their civic duty.

Before 1978, courts could cite interfering employers for contempt of court. Congress found the contempt citation too weak a tool to protect employees and passed the Federal Jury Act.

The law (USC Title 28, Part V, Ch. 121, § 1875) makes it clear that employers may not “discharge, threaten to discharge, intimidate, or coerce any permanent employee by reason of such employee’s jury service, or the attendance or scheduled attendance in connection with such service, in any court of the United States.” Employers that break the law face fines of up to $5,000 for each violation, in addition to back pay and other damages payable to the employee.

Employees who believe their employer violated this law don’t have to retain their own attorney. They simply provide the court with a plain statement of fact alleging a violation. If the court believes the case has “probable merit” (a very low standard of proof) it will appoint an attorney to represent the employee. If the employee ultimately shows that the employer violated the law, the employer pays the plaintiff’s attorney fees.

WHAT’S NEW: Two recent cases, one in New York and one in Illinois, show that courts won’t turn a blind eye to employers that fire workers because of jury service.

Short notice, long service

In the New York case, Andrew Arnold sued his employer, Beth Abraham Health Services, and his union, Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Arnold had worked for Beth Abraham for approximately 10 years when he received a federal jury summons. He told his supervisor on a Friday that he was about to begin serving on a federal jury the following Monday.

The next week, shortly after Arnold told his boss he would be “serving a long time” because he had been selected for a federal grand jury, he was fired. According to the health system, the reason was “poor work performance.”

Arnold sued Beth Abraham and the SEIU, both of which tried to have Jury Act charges dismissed. Only the SEIU was successful, since unions aren’t employers under the Jury Act. Now, barring a settlement, Arnold and Beth Abraham will go to court.

Out on jury duty, then gone

In Illinois, Stacy Wallace claimed her employer, Select Remedy, fired her because of her jury service. Wallace had only been on the job a little over two weeks when her jury duty began.

Wallace reported for jury duty, left her boss a message explaining the court schedule and left a number where she could be reached. She heard nothing while serving four days on a federal jury. When she returned to work the next day, she was told she was no longer employed. Initially, Select Remedy offered no reason for her firing, although her former supervisor eventually told her she had been fired for poor performance.

She filed a complaint with the court, which notified Select Remedy. The company never responded. The court determined that Wallace’s complaint had “probable merit” and appointed an attorney to represent her.

Most likely, Select Remedy will be paying that attorney’s fee.

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