A federal jury in Florida has awarded $4.5 million against an auto dealer for claims of disability discrimination under the Florida Civil Rights Act (FCRA). Axel v. Fields Motorcars of Florida, Inc., No. 8:15-cv-893-17JSS (M.D. Fla. Feb. 22, 2017). The verdict consisted of $680,000 in lost wages and benefits, $600,000 for emotional pain and mental anguish, and $3,220,220 in punitive damages. The jury found the employer discriminated against Michael Fields after he returned from a medical absence for treatment of kidney cancer. The jury rejected the plaintiff’s claims of age discrimination pursuant to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

Axel was employed by Fields Motorcars of Florida, Inc. for approximately 10 years. According to court records, he had not received any disciplinary or corrective action in that time. To the contrary, he had received awards for his performance. After Fields was diagnosed with kidney cancer, he underwent experimental treatment and was able to return to work where he was capable of performing all of his duties. Axel further claimed that he was on pace to have the most productive year at Fields. However, he was repeatedly passed up for promotions, and was demoted and terminated for failure to follow company policies and processes.

In its decision to terminate Axel, the employer relied upon a letter that dated back to the beginning of his employment, approximately 10 years earlier. A Vice President and General Manager claimed that Axel had forged a document that provided his son access to auto auctions without authorization. He performed no independent investigation and never spoke to Axel prior to his termination. Axel claimed that while he signed the letter, he had authorization to do so from management. There was no suggestion that Axel’s son improperly used his authority to purchase cars on behalf of Fields.

This case highlights the importance of thorough investigations by management prior terminations, especially with respect to employees with a protected status or disability and those who bring an internal complaint of discrimination. When a company lacks the expertise to conduct an investigation on its own and fails to enlist assistance, it can pay the price at trial.