Friday, December 1, 2017

Jury Awards $8.5 Million Verdict to Staffer Fired after Blowing Whistle on SEIU’s Failed Representation

Over the years, Tasty has reported on SEIU-UHW’s repeated failures to enforce its own labor contracts and defend union members against their bosses.

Remember the Kaiser worker who sued SEIU-UHW for failing to defend her against the allegedly meth-smoking manager who fired her? Or the SEIU-UHW official who simply sat on her hands while Kaiser Permanente fired a worker with 33 years on the job? Or the SEIU-UHW member from Dignity Health who sued SEIU-UHW in federal court alleging that SEIU-UHW officials failed to enforce the union’s own labor contract and instead allowed the hospital to fire her.

Well, here’s an interesting story about a similar kind of failed representation at SEIU Local 721, which represents 90,000 public-sector workers in the Los Angeles region.

On November 24, a California jury awarded an $8.5 million verdict against SEIU Local 721 for wrongfully terminating one of the union’s own staff members after he revealed to Local 721 officials a backlog of more than 600 arbitration cases that had been filed by members but weren’t being handled. He alleged that Local 721 falsified records to cover up the massive backlog.

The staffer, Talbert Mitchell, worked as the union’s “Advocacy Coordinator” and had been on staff for 21 years. According to his lawyers, after Mitchell directed an internal report revealing the massive backlog of arbitration cases and following his medical leave for a hernia surgery, Mitchell was wrongfully terminated.

The jury agreed with Mitchell, finding he was the victim of whistleblower retaliation, disability discrimination, medical leave discrimination, and wrongful termination. The jury awarded him a $2.4 million verdict and an additional $6.1 million in punitive damages.

(Don’t count the money yet, as these kinds of verdicts can shrink on appeal.)

A former member of SEIU Local 721 said the staffer’s description of failed representation is consistent with his experience. Here’s what he told Tasty in an e-mail:
Many employee grievances were mishandled (on the union side, once responsibility of the grievance handling was transferred from the steward to the Local) -- time frames were overlooked resulting in many management denials and many more were lost after they were allegedly transferred to the County's Human Resources Department for a higher level of possible adjudication called Arbitration.  Were the union staff set up for failure by being given unmanageable caseloads or did the executive staff of the Local just not care in representing it's members?  Another question for the members to consider is where does anyone think this award money, to pay Mr. Talbert Mitchell, will come from.  Why will no one at the Local 721 be charged mush less dismissed because of gross incompetence and/or administrative mismanagement?

As for Talbert Mitchell, the former Local 721 staffer, here’s what his lawyers said in a November 28 press release:
“Due to his disability, needing medical leave, and his reporting of conduct he thought was illegal and which adversely affected union member rights, he became the target of his superiors and ultimately was terminated with a fabricated story," said Carney Shegerian, Mitchell's trial lawyer. "Talbert was morally treated wrong by his employer and superiors, and today a California jury of his peers announced that treatment was not only just illegal, but punishable."

For more information about the jury verdict, here’s a news story:

Toni McAllister, “Jury awards Lynwood whistleblower $2.63 million, punished for exposing union’s wrongdoing,” City News Service, November 24, 2017.