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Law firm loses appeal of former employee’s lawsuit

fileD’Angelo & Hashem, a law firm that has represented employees in disputes with their employers, and partner Saba B. Hashem found themselves the target of one such lawsuit when former secretary and receptionist Jennifer Carrion sued the North Andover, Massachusetts, firm in 2007 for discrimination and retaliation.

Carrion, who started working at the firm in 2005, alleged that she was fired after she announced she was pregnant and that the firm later retaliated against her by contesting her application for unemployment benefits.

The defendants maintained that Carrion had been terminated for inadequate job performance after a co-worker reported seeing Carrion leave the firm’s mail in the restroom and finding her asleep at her desk.

In 2011, a Suffolk Superior Court jury in Boston returned a verdict for Carrion on both her discrimination and retaliation claims. She was awarded a combined $109,000, plus interest and costs.

In 2012, Judge Thomas E. Connolly ordered Hashem and the law firm to pay $142,000 to Carrion’s Massachusetts attorneys — Anne Glennon of Manomet, Wendy A. Kaplan of Boston and Michaela C. May of Arlington — and criticized the defendants for disputing the plaintiff’s legal bills, including, for example, a $20 parking fee.

“Counsel for the defendants, [Connecticut lawyer Jay M.] Wolman, repeatedly states that this was a simple case, the stakes in the matter were small, economic damages were straightforward, and emotional distress damages were ‘garden-variety’ with no expert witnesses,” Connolly wrote. “This Court believes that the problem with Attorney Wolman in this matter is that he did not see the same case that the Court and obviously the jury saw. He was present and participated at the trial, but he certainly did not and still does not appreciate the strength of the plaintiff’s case, during and post trial.”

The Appeals Court recently affirmed the discrimination verdict against Hashem and the firm and $100,000 of the jury’s $109,000 in damages. However, the court found there was not sufficient evidence to support the retaliation claim against the firm.

“Viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the evidence not only presented a prima facie case of gender discrimination based on the plaintiff’s pregnancy, but also created a jury question as to whether the defendant’s proffered reasons for terminating her employment were a pretext,” the decision states. “Although the defendants maintained at trial that they terminated the plaintiff’s employment because of her inadequate job performance and her ‘lying’ about sleeping at work, the plaintiff testified that Hashem never mentioned these allegations or any other issue about her work when he took action against her. When he ordered her to take a leave of absence, he explicitly told her that he was putting her on leave because she was pregnant, and when he fired her two days later, he again did not bring up any issues with her job performance.”

When she was placed on leave, Carrion claimed she complained to Hashem that he was being “unfair” to her because she was pregnant. But while the jury agreed with Carrion that her complaint was protected activity and triggered the firm’s decision to contest her unemployment benefit, the Appeals Court said she “did not establish the requisite causal connection between the alleged protected activity and the firm’s action” and ruled that the law firm’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the retaliation claim should have been allowed.

The Appeals Court went on to reject several of the defendants’ claims on appeal because they failed to raise them with the trial court judge.

“The Appeals Court upheld 90 percent of the verdict,” May says. “We got a really good result for our client. She made $9 an hour and was rendered homeless.”

Hashem and his law partner, Stephen L. D’Angelo, did not return multiple requests seeking comment. Their application for further appellate review was denied by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court.

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