I did a double take when I received an email alert late Friday with the subject line: “BREAKING: Ohio Judge Hit With $1.1M Verdict For Firing Jewish Staff Atty.”
Sure enough, a jury awarded $1,120,000 ($835,000 in back pay, $250,000 in compensatory damages, and $35,000 in punitive damages) to an Ohio judge’s former staff attorney and magistrate who sued her old boss for religious discrimination.
She represented herself.
According to this report from Law360’s Eric Heisig, the plaintiff was fired shortly after her employer initially resisted giving her time off for the Jewish High Holidays:
[Plaintiff] told [the judge] in July 2016 that she needed to take eight non-consecutive days off the following October for the High Holidays. [Plaintiff] claims the judge yelled at her, angrily saying “holy cow, eight days,” court filings stated.
[Plaintiff] said [the judge] calmed down after she explained the days were work restricted and that the previous judge let her take the days off, waving her away and saying “fine,” the filings said.
Still, [the judge] decided to fire [Plaintiff] “almost immediately after her request” and took steps to do so the following morning, according to court filings. She was officially fired on Aug. 1, 2016, and she sued the following year, alleging that the termination was because she tried to practice her religion by taking the High Holidays off.
The plaintiff asserted a state law claim for religious discrimination. But, the jury found in favor of the judge.
Instead, she prevailed under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause. Effectively, the jury concluded not only that the defendant’s actions deprived the plaintiff of her constitutional right to the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment, but the defendant acted maliciously or in reckless disregard of the plaintiff’s rights.
This decision is anomalous for many reasons. It’s the first time I can recall a jury verdict against a judge in a free exercise of religion case, and First Amendment case would have no legs against private employers.
However, the religious discrimination claim could. Title VII, the federal counterpart, makes it unlawful to discharge an individual because of their religion. Employers also have a duty to accommodate the sincerely-held beliefs of employees when doing so will enable them to perform the essential functions of the job without creating undue hardship for the business.
This jury verdict reaffirms that no one is above the law on workplace discrimination.
Even the ones who wear the black robes and bang the gavel.