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Self-Storage Employee Wins $1.35M Verdict in Wrongful-Termination Case

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The California 1st District Court of Appeal has upheld a lower-court decision that awarded former self-storage employee Eva O’Brien $1.325 million for wrongful termination and punitive damages. O’Brien was awarded $325,000 in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages in her case against Dennis E. Baca, owner of Airport Self Storage in Livermore, Calif. O’Brien was also awarded the cost of her legal fees.

Baca appealed the lower-court decision after a motion for a new trial was denied. The defendant argued there was insufficient evidence to support the jury’s verdict. He also contended the awarded damages were excessive and that O’Brien’s attorney committed misconduct during Phase II of the trial, according to court documents.

O’Brien was hired in November 2010 by Baca and self-storage facility manager Laura Read, who is described in court documents as Baca’s “longtime companion.” O’Brien was hired at $15 per hour as a “relief clerk” to spend three days per week at the self-storage facility and two days per week at Baca’s business office. Airport Self Storage also does business as Baca Properties, which owns other commercial assets including office and retail properties, according to its website.

In May or June 2011, O’Brien learned she was pregnant and later told Read, despite being warned by a fellow employee that Baca wouldn’t be happy about the news. During a meeting with Baca and Read on Oct. 7, Baca confronted O’Brien, berating her and throwing a rental agreement at her. “All you can think about is your family, and you’re making so many mistakes. You don’t pay attention,” Baca said, according to court documents filed on Dec. 4. “You’re four, five months pregnant now? In a few weeks, with your belly, you’re not going to be able to do your work, and then you’re going to be breast feeding; and it’s going to cause even more problems.”

Baca then apparently got in O’Brien’s face and asked if she wanted to give notice. When O’Brien said no, Baca told her to get back to work and “I’m going to take care of you.” The self-storage owner didn’t fire her in part because he didn’t want her to collect unemployment. He told another employee that he was going to make O’Brien quit, and instructed another staff member to confiscate her keys to the storage facility.

On Oct. 10, O’Brien was prohibited from answering the phone, collecting rental checks or using the computer, and instructed to clean, dust and mop the office, including the toilets and windows—duties she hadn’t been assigned previously. Four days later, she was sent home after three hours of work and filed a claim with the Employment Development Department for a reduction of hours. She was also sent home early on Oct. 17.

According to the court, Read began searching for O’Brien’s replacement after the Oct. 7 meeting and had that person begin work on Oct. 19. When O’Brien reported for work on Oct. 21, she was told Baca wanted her to go home. When O’Brien called Read to inquire when she could return to work, Read told her, “We see that you filed for unemployment. We no longer need your services.”

On O’Brien’s final paycheck, Baca forged a note from O’Brien to appear she’d given notice. Baca admitted in court that he wrote the note to create the appearance of O’Brien having quit. The court indicated this was an intent to “create beneficial evidence if O’Brien sought unemployment benefits for being fired.”

O’Brien described Baca as a “micromanager” and was treated for anxiety and depression after her termination. The jury awarded her $25,000 for economic loss and $300,000 for emotional stress. After Phase II, the jury determined Baca had acted with malice, oppression or fraud, and awarded O’Brien $1 million in punitive damages.

Baca produced only one financial-related document during the trial, which included a list of properties he owned with a 2014-2015 assessed value of more than $57.7 million.

“Baca contends his conduct was not ‘sufficiently reprehensible to warrant imposition of punitive damages.’” the court wrote in its opinion. “He is wrong.”

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