Employers continue to be faced with military personnel coming back from active duty, whether fighting wars or battling hurricanes and other natural disasters. Last year a court ordered Target Corp. to pay nearly $1 million in damages for retaliating against a National Guardsman who complained about being demoted when he returned from active duty. A graduate of West Point, James Patton served six years in the Army before retiring as a captain in 2001. After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks he joined the Oregon National Guard. Patton had been working for Target since the summer of 2000 and was employed as a group leader at the company’s distribution center in Albany, OR. After returning from a two-week term of active military duty with the National Guard in 2003, Patton was told he had been demoted.
He sent an e-mail to co-workers at other Target warehouses informing them of the demotion and directing them to contact his successor. Patton also contacted an employer support representative from the Oregon National Guard to help convince Target to reinstate him to his prior position.
In mid-July 2003, Target fired Patton, saying his e-mail to co-workers was disruptive and violated company policy.
Patton testified at trial about his treatment, the timing of his National Guard training and his demotion on the day he returned from active duty. He told the jury that after his supervisors demoted him, they told him to take a week off. Patton said that one human resources official told him that the company thought he would quit after being demoted. Target contended that it does not discriminate on the basis of military service and has a strong history of supporting employees who are veterans, reservists, or members of the National Guard. Several of Patton’s supervisors testified that both his demotion and termination were based on legitimate personnel reasons.
However, the jury ultimately found that Target officials retaliated against Patton for asking the National Guard to intervene. They awarded him $84,970 in lost wages, other economic damages and non-economic damages. The jury also ordered Target to pay $900,000 in punitive damages. Read the entire opinion here.
Here’s the point: This is a serious exposure to the company that doesn’t handle things right! The DOL has issued a great FAQ on the combined FMLA/ USERRA obligations.