Rein in abusive managers: Even ‘Flip Wilson’ claim sways jury

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

You'd think that 12 jurors wouldn't look kindly on an armed robber's claim that job discrimination drove him to rob a convenience store with a sawed-off shotgun. But you would be wrong.

In this case, the robber's "Flip Wilson" defense, "The devil made me do it," as the comedian used to say on his TV show, swayed the jury because he could show a link between his behavior and his supervisor's callous treatment.

Here's what happened: Richard Shick had a good job record at an Illinois public agency until a series of run-ins with his new boss over his medical accommodations. Several co-workers were allowed to take long smoking breaks, yet the supervisor monitored Shick's break time closely, even when he needed longer bathroom breaks due to his medical condition. Shick also claimed his boss deliberately delayed replacing batteries in Shick's telephone headset.

Distraught, Shick robbed a convenience store and woke up in jail, not knowing how he got there. A psychiatrist later said he had a "disassociative disorder." Eventually, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

He filed suit against his employer, alleging that the psychological damage inflicted by his boss, specifically, sex and disability discrimination, drove him to his criminal act.

Amazingly, a jury went for the bait on both counts and awarded him $5 million in damages and $166,700 in back pay. The ruling earned Shick the title of "Tort reform poster boy for 2002" by the National Law Journal.

But the case isn't over; sanity may yet win out. The trial judge reduced the $5 million to "only" $300,000, and he also tossed out the disability judgment because state governments are immune to ADA lawsuits. The case also is set for a new trial on the sex discrimination charge because an appeals court said the talk of disability bias may have tainted the jury's view of the sex-bias charge. Stay tuned. (Shick v. Illinois Department of Human Services, No. 00-2696, 7th Cir., 2002)

Advice: Even one of the dissenting appeals judges called this a "bizarre verdict," but it offers a lesson: Don't allow supervisors to single out a worker for bad treatment. There's no place for it, and juries, even in extreme cases like this, will be more inclined to feel the employee's pain when a supervisor becomes abusive.

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