In a recent case, an Illinois federal jury sided with the employer in a retrial over a U.S. Army reservist/employee’s claim that the employer, Volvo Group North America LLC, had wrongfully fired her because of her military service in violation of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA).
The employee had taken 900 days of military leave in connection with multiple deployments to the Middle East over six years. After returning to work, she ultimately was fired due to what Volvo claimed was her repeated violation of its attendance policy with excessive tardiness. The employee claimed that Volvo subjected her to heightened scrutiny at work because it was looking for reasons to terminate her due to her service. The employee presented evidence of supervisors complaining of her service and a lack of updates from the employee when she was deployed, despite there being no such obligation under USERRA. A jury was persuaded of the violation and responded with a substantial verdict of $2.6 million in compensatory damages and $5.2 million in punitive damages. Volvo appealed the verdict. The Court of Appeals ordered a new trial on the ground that the verdict was “grossly excessive.” On retrial, a jury sided with Volvo after it introduced evidence that it had enforced its attendance policy, however strict, the same way against all employees and had not singled the servicemember out.
It is clear that under USERRA, employees are protected from discipline or termination because of their protected service. However, upon returning to work, employees must comply with all workplace policies, and may be terminated for violating them. Employers must ensure that all company policies are enforced neutrally and that all employees are treated the same.
Due to the large population of servicemembers in the Tidewater area, it is not uncommon for employers and employees to face issues related to USERRA. If you are an employer looking for advice on complying with USERRA or similar laws, or if you are a servicemember who has been subjected to an adverse employment action, WE CAN HELP. Please reach out to us for a consultation.