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Attorney Found To Be Joint Employer and Loses Almost $700,000

Published by on April 23, 2010

An attorney who was the public face of a collection agency was found to be a joint employer and liable for acts by the agency’s non-lawyer supervisors in a race discrimination case brought by an employee of the collection agency.  For an eye opener, here is a copy of the jury verdict form.  More after […]

An attorney who was the public face of a collection agency was found to be a joint employer and liable for acts by the agency’s non-lawyer supervisors in a race discrimination case brought by an employee of the collection agency.  For an eye opener, here is a copy of the jury verdict form.  More after the break.

In Bess v. Hecker, 08-2184, a federal court jury in Trenton, N.J., found that Laurence Hecker of Toms River, N.J., and APM Financial Services, the debt-collection servicing company he represented in collection issues, were dual employers and therefore jointly liable for discriminating against a black employee, Steven Bess.

In proving that Hecker maintained the requisite control over plaintiff to establish that he was an employer, the fact that the company presented itself to the public as “The Law Office of Laurence Hecker” was heavily relied upon.  “The Law Office of Laurence Hecker” was on the outside of the building; Hecker had an office inside APM; and APM paid all rent and utilities associated with the maintenance of Hecker’s law office.  In addition, employees considered the attorney to be an employer.  Plaintiff’s evidence suggested that all the debt-collection work at APM was actually performed on Hecker’s behalf and that the employees considered themselves working for him as an employer.

Hecker argued that he didn’t even belong in the case.  There was no evidence Hecker had a role in any workplace bias, and he gave un-rebutted testimony that he never even had a conversation with Bess.  The alleged bias was perpetrated by an APM supervisor.  His only supervisory role was to ensure that agents comply with the Federal Debt Collection Practices Act and he had no authority to hire workers and was “not sure” if he had authority to fire employees because he had never done so.

But it was clear that the work space and phone number were the same for both Hecker and APM, although Hecker claimed that he had an office at APM only because he figured that if he had to travel to the company it should provide him with space to work.  Further, Hecker and the company had the same telephone number.  When the joint employer questions was brought to the jury, it was determined that Hecker was a dual-employer.  The jury found Hecker and the company liable for $95,000 in compensatory damages and added $600,000 in punitives in the March 15 verdict. 

This case shows that a jury can and will judge a book by its cover.  While the company took full responsibility for employee relations, Hecker could not overcome the fact that APM presented itself to the public to under his name and was intertwined with the agency’s operations on a day-to-day basis.  It is tough to convince anyone, whether judge or layman, that an entity has no control over the employment relations of an individual when your name is on the door and you are in the office on a day-to-day basis to oversee operations.  Even if an entity is not responsible for employee relations on paper, when there is absolutely no separation between the operations of both entities in other aspects of business operations it is tough to argue that there is separation in the employment context only.

Law.com has the story here.

Contributed by Michael Wilson Stoker

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