It could have been an inspiration for the movie Horrible Bosses. Michael Mercieca, a Microsoft sales employee in Texas, found himself suddenly demoted, with his accounts sabotaged, pay cut back, and facing false accusations of sexual harassment.
Mercieca was hassled over vacation requests, told he had a “bad attitude” for providing constructive criticism, and sudden given poor performance reviews after years of steady improvements.
Eventually, he was fired.
The misery started for Mercieca after his former girlfriend, Lori Aulds, was promoted to become his supervisor. A close friend of hers who worked as a consultant at the company, Tracey Rummler, concocted the harassment allegations against Merceica.
Aulds and Rummler planned their campaign against Merceica while the consultant was sleeping over at Aulds’ apartment on a business trip. When the claims were later investigated, they were found to be without merit.
Mercieca said he was also subjected to sexual harassment from Aulds. “You have ruined me for sex with my boyfriends,” she told him, according to his complaint. Against his wishes, she attempted to draw him into disputes with some of her lovers, Mercieca alleged. He said he was also teased about his Japanese heritage.
In a lawsuit over the bullying campaign, a jury found unanimously in favor of Mercieca. The company was ordered to pay him $2 million in damages.
Bullying is increasingly being called out in the workplace, and it costs companies dearly in the form of higher employee turnover, legal verdicts, and settlements. Many incidents have some element of harassment based on sex, age, ethnicity or religion, which could trigger a lawsuit under anti-discrimination law alleging a hostile work environment.
Even when the bullying doesn’t involve a protected class, employees still might be able to seek damages for physical suffering or emotional distress, such as panic attacks, heart palpitations, and depression.
As an employee who might be subject to the torments of a jerk supervisor or colleague, you can take comfort in the fact that the courts are starting to take note of this form of harassment.
Apart from the Microsoft case, here are some other big legal awards in cases of workplace bullying.
- $1.08 million to a Dallas nurse:
Patty Hahn, a nurse in a urologist clinic, said she was intimidated and sexually harassed by the doctor she worked for. On one occasion, when frustrated, he shouted: “Just shut up. I’m sick of you,” with his hands raised in fists in her direction. When she spoke up about the incident and said she felt threatened and didn’t like him shouting at her, the doctor, Scott Davidson, called her into his office after hours to give her a “demonstration” of shouting. It was a harrowing experience for her, causing significant mental distress.
A jury found against both the doctor and the clinic, awarding $1.08 million. The nurse settled for $440,000.
- $1 million to an Australian public servant:
The woman, who worked in middle management at a government agency, was bullied by supervisors who falsely accused her of having an inappropriate relationship with someone else in the office and trying to pass off others’ work as her own.
Completely unaware of any of these allegations, she was called into a meeting over what she thought was to discuss a small error in paperwork. Once she arrived for the meeting, however, she was suddenly subjected to a hostile interrogation about fictionalized transgressions.
The situation left her traumatized. She tried to handle the issue, and calm down, by taking a leave of absence. But when she returned to work, the bullying continued. Supervisors excluded her from her former team and purposely left her out of discussions. She became so uncomfortable around her supervisors she avoided being in the restroom at the same time as those managers.
She eventually left the company.
- $3 million to a California transportation employee:
John Barrie, a worker at the state transportation agency Caltrans, claimed his supervisors made life a living hell for him by preying on his disability.
Barrie, an office worker, had an extreme sensitivity to household chemicals. Exposure to products such as Windex or perfume could make him severely ill. When he brought his disability to the attention of supervisors, they responded with obnoxious and harmful pranks. They sprayed his office area with perfume, moved his workspace to an area near paint fumes, and asked him to perform janitorial duties requiring the use of household cleaners.
He suffered symptoms ranging from dizziness to trembling and impaired cognitive function. A jury awarded him $44,000 in economic damages and $3 million for emotional distress.
- $17.4 million to an L.A. sanitation worker:
James Pearl was subjected to mockery, harassment, and trumped-up allegations of unethical behavior based on a false impression in the office that he was gay.
The wastewater collection supervisor spent years enduring homophobic colleagues who distributed doctored photos in the office, purporting to show him in a relationship with a subordinate, and left items suggestive of homosexual sex on his desk. Managers referred to him in derogatory language and slurs, and invented misconduct claims about him, leading to disciplinary action and his firing.
He appealed the action and was reinstated 13 months later. Although Pearl was straight and married to a woman, the actions were spurred by false assumptions about his sexual orientation.
A concerned colleague reported the mistreatment to a high-ranking supervisor in the department, but he ignored the reports. Pearl suffered physical and psychological damage.
- $120,000 to Tasmanian PwC employee:
An employee at the consulting firm in Western Australia alleged that colleagues made his life a living hell merely because he hailed from Tasmania, an Australian state off the country’s coast. Michael Bradley alleged he suffered a mental breakdown as a result of other employees piling work on him with limited support, imposing unrealistic deadlines, and then coming down hard on him in performance reviews for his difficulties.
The company settled without admitting liability and claimed he just wasn’t up to the task. Bradley suffered anxiety and depression as a result of the years of grueling work that he says was just meant to crush his spirits.
He stuck through it thinking things would improve, but they just got worse. The junior accountant worked late into the evenings on many occasions, leaving him exhausted and unable to study for an improved professional designation. His colleagues also mocked him, calling him “BradleCakes,” despite his request that they stop, and spoke negatively about him in front of clients. One colleague referred to Bradley as “dodgy” in front of a large client.
Do you think were harassed at work or by a co-worker? Visit our workplace harassment FAQ page for more information. Ready to see if you have a case? Contact us online or by phone at 888.249.6944. All inquiries are protected by the attorney-client privilege and kept CONFIDENTIAL. (There is never a fee for a consultation.)