opinion

The Eye of the Beholder

Stephen Yagielowicz

I was recently summoned to the county courthouse, where after a brief period of examination, I was selected to participate as a juror in a week-long civil trial that pit a young woman against her former employer.

The upshot of the case was that the plaintiff claimed her layoff was due to her being pregnant, rather than due to the slowdown in business claimed by her former employer.

Without rehashing the details, the employer may have been sloppy in its practices but not malicious in the woman’s termination, so no fault was found against them, under the evidence shown and the specific instructions that the jury was provided with.

There are lessons from this experience that I want to share, besides warning against the waistline bursting bulge that can arise from a week of eating four county-supplied jelly donuts and maple bars per day!

See, I’ve been pretty good about staying out of trouble. Apart from a few youthful indiscretions (usually related to how insanely fast I was driving or my lack of control at the time I was noticed), my experience of the legal system has been limited to showing moral support as an audience member during local mining law cases, and to being a fan of classic courtroom dramas, such as Billy Wilder’s 1957 “Witness for the Prosecution,” 1960’s “Inherit the Wind,” and 1961’s “Judgment at Nuremberg,” all coming to mind.

The real thing is not like these movies, where editing compresses the monotony.

But the real thing may indeed be like “12 Angry Men” with Henry Fonda, since it is easy to see how a disinterested jury could gloss over relevant material and make a quick decision in its own self-interest, rather than spend time reviewing already seen material.

If it’s ever your turn to face the judge, the best thing you can do is to be sympathetic to the jury, so that at least one juror takes a personal interest in your welfare and at least gives you a fair chance — instead of wanting to rush off, back to his or her daily life.

One thing that became evident during the trial is that employment law (especially in California) is not something to take lightly. In this case, a small “family” company faced with rapid expansion, relied upon an existing staff member; adding “HR Manager” to her already long list of responsibilities.

A capable person, the new HR chief used attorney provided employee manuals, forms for hiring and firing, a wide range of required legal documents and laminated signage in the workplace — updated annually — to carry out her responsibilities in good faith; but every paper clip she ever twisted was called into question by the slick lawyer from L.A. that came up to the mountains to set some hicks straight about labor laws.

I suspect that many adult entertainment firms that have been more focused on keeping up with the Internet may be similarly vulnerable from a labor law compliance standpoint; and not even realize that they could lose their company to a disgruntled ex-employee that can prove they didn’t follow the letter of an extremely complicated set of laws — with a liability for sexual harassment in the workplace something for porn mongers to consider.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway I had that might benefit some of you is to be careful of the statements that you make, not only in the real world, but online in social media and in venues such as message boards, site comments and reviews, and other public forums.

During the trial, screenshots of the plaintiff’s Facebook posts were displayed on the big screen, in which she boasted of how her plans were now coming to fruition and how she was going to make her former employer pay and really take it to them.

You can’t post on Facebook about how much fun you’re having, relaxing around the house and spending time with your children; and then expect to win a lawsuit where you claim that you’re stressed and miserable without a job, and can no longer enjoy your life — and that it will take half a million bucks to make you stop crying and smile again.

None of the statements she made would have helped the plaintiff had we progressed to awarding any damages. She wanted a house out of the deal, but what she got was a bill from her attorney — and in this case, the plaintiff’s use of social media may have cost her everything, since even her “shouting” in all capital letters was pointed out — a valuable lesson to consider before passionately hitting that “post” button.

At the end of this case, neither party had moved the ball: the ratio was not even 49/51 — it was a clear 50/50 shot at who to believe. So Lady Justice, her eyes still blindfolded and her scales in balance, moved on to her next case — and I got $157 from the county plus this story to tell, which hopefully will help you out some day.

 

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