A woman was awarded $16.5 million in punitive damages today by a Los Angeles jury that found her former employer discriminated against her because of a mental disability and wrongfully fired her, bringing her total award to $21.7 million.
The Los Angeles Superior Court jury deliberated for about an hour before reaching its 11-1 decision in the punitive damages portion of April Rodriguez's lawsuit against Industry-based Valley Vista Services Inc. and its parent company, Zerep Management Corp.
The same panel on Wednesday awarded the 34-year-old Rancho Cucamonga woman $5.2 million in compensatory damages. The second phase of trial was triggered when the jury found that the companies owned by former Industry Mayor David Perez and his brother, Manuel Perez, acted with malice.
Rodriguez's attorneys maintained the waste disposal company, where the former Baldwin Park resident worked as a customer service representative, failed to help her with her condition by granting her leave time and other accommodations. Rodriguez testified she suffered often from panic attacks.
"I think I'm in a dream right now," Rodriguez said as she fought to compose herself outside the courtroom.
The mother of four credited the work of the jury and her attorneys for helping her win the case. She also lauded the testimony of three former co- workers who told the jury about their own grievances with Valley Vista.
Rodriguez said her firing caused her severe financial hardship and that she had to place two of her four children with her brother because of her lost income. She said she did not believe David M. Perez, an executive with all the Perez family entities and a nephew of the former mayor, when he told jurors that the Rodriguez case prompted him to take a renewed looking into her grievances and to take steps to prevent such animosity and mistrust between employees and their bosses at Valley Vista in the future.
Rodriguez testified that her superior, Valley Vista office manager Susan Silvestri, was skeptical of the plaintiff's panic attack claims and implied through her comments that she was faking them to obtain more leave time.
David M. Perez told jurors that he is considering all options, including firing Silvestri. He also told the panel that a large punitive damages verdict would be a financial hardship.
Rodriguez said she would never return to Valley Vista even if invited to do so and that she now plans to continue her career goal of becoming a registered nurse. She also said she hopes her case brings public attention to the fact that panic attacks are a genuine mental disability and employers should treat afflicted workers fairly.
Defense attorney Steven Joffe said the verdicts will be appealed. He stated in his court papers that his clients were never told the nature of Rodriguez's disability. He said she was fired in January 2010 for not calling her supervisors to explain an absence that lasted longer than three days. They said they asked the woman's then-husband, Henry Rodriguez, to relay a message to the plaintiff that her employers wanted to hear from her.
Henry Rodriguez also works for Valley Vista. He and the plaintiff are now divorced.
Defense attorneys also denied the plaintiff's assertion that Valley Vista failed to accommodate her in a way that would have allowed her to perform her duties.
But Rodriguez said she did try to reach someone at Valley Vista during the time her former employers claimed she had abandoned her job. She also said she bears no grudge against her former husband for his testimony on behalf of Valley Vista. Bruce Kokozian, one of Rodriguez's lawyers, said his client was experiencing panic attacks just before she was fired and was trying to make an appointment with a psychiatrist.
--Bill Hetherman, City News Service