Last Friday, March 22nd, a federal court jury in San Diego awarded over $4,646,252 to Denise Steffens. Ms. Steffens (represented at trial by Cindy Panuco and Dan Stormer of HSRR and Susan Guinn) was employed as a building manager by the office rental company Regus Group PLC, but was fired in July of 2007 after reporting wage-and-hour violations. The verdict is especially monumental since it comes out of the usually conservative San Diego area.
"This is a great victory," said Cindy Panuco. "It shows that jurors will not accept hollow excuses for abusing workers."
In October 2006, Steffens complained that Regus' staffing plan didn't allow her to give her staff legally required lunch and rest breaks. Immediately after this, the regional vice president of the company gave the order to "Get rid of her," according to testimony from her former supervisor.
Her 11 years of prior employment records were unblemished, but in April 2007 she was put on a performance improvement plan intended to result in her termination, including impossible sales goals and supposed weaknesses in performance which her supervisor testified had been copied almost directly from an improvement plan previously given to another Regus employee. In July of 2007, Steffens was terminated.
Regus, however, argued that Steffens was fired because of her declining attitude toward her work.
After four days of trial, the jury found Regus liable for wrongful termination in violation of public policy - a tort claim which prohibits retaliation for whistleblowing. The jury returned a verdict for $4,646,252, including $3.5 million in punitive damages after finding that Regus acted with fraud, oppression, or malice when it terminated Ms. Steffens.
Denise Steffens v. Regus Group PLC
Case No.: 3:08-cv-0149-LAB-WVG