In 1998, Debbie Bonidy was hired as dental assistant at a dental clinic, in Vail, Colorado. The dental clinic was run by Dr. Harding. About year after Debbie was working there, Dr. Harding changed the employees’ schedules. He told his employees that they would no longer receive rest breaks or lunch breaks unless there was a schedule opening caused by a patient cancellation. In 2004, the Dr., once again, changed the rules. This time he told his employees they were no longer permitted to leave the office during the workday unless they had to go to the bathroom. That night, Bonidy went home and told her husband. Her husband sent an email to the doctor asserting the doctor was violating Colorado law by failing to allow his staff to have rest and lunch breaks. The doctor did not see the email until after he returned from his vacation. After reading the email he fired Bonidy.
Bonidy sued. One of her claims was that she was terminated in violation of public policy because she was fired for asserting her right to receive rest and lunch breaks. At trial, and before the case could be decided by the jury, the judge found in favor of the employer. Bonidy appealed. She argued that she was entitled to have the jury consider whether Dr. Harding had a right to terminate her for asserting her legal right to rest and lunch breaks. (Lawyers refer to this as a wrongful termination in violation of public policy.) The appellate court felt that Ms. Bonidy had a right to ask her employer to abide by the law and provide her with rest and lunch breaks and, as a result her claim was reinstated.
The Bottom Line:
Timing can make or break a case. Here we don’t know if the employer had an independent basis to terminate Ms. Bonidy. We do know that the employer immediately terminated her for asserting her legal rights. When employers act first and think later they tend to find themselves in court. Any decision to terminate an employee should only be made after giving the matter careful thought.
Although we don’t know Dr. Hardy’s rational for terminating Ms. Bonidy, there are some lessons to be learned from this case:
1. Always let your employees have their required rest and lunch breaks. If you don’t you will pay in more ways than one. First, rest and lunch breaks allow your employees to stay fresh and productive throughout the work day. Second, failure to do so could subject you to a claim for lost wages, double damages, interest and attorneys’ fees.
2. Before you make a major decision, consider the timing of your actions and how it will look to a jury several years later with the harsh scrutiny of 20/20 hindsight.
3. When in doubt about whether you are on solid ground in making the termination decision. A couple of hours with your lawyer might just save you tens of thousands of dollars in defense costs.