Jason Bissonnette v. Highland Park Market Inc.: A former employee of a Connecticut supermarket chain has been awarded about $536,000 after a jury decided that he was wrongfully terminated when he took time off to have back surgery for an injury he claimed to have suffered while on the job.
Last year, a Hartford Superior Court jury ruled that Highland Park Market violated the federal Family Medical Leave Act and a provision of the state Workers’ Compensation Act for firing Jason Bissonnette. The jury awarded $103,000 in economic damages.
Just recently, a trial judge awarded roughly $433,000 in additional damages, interest and attorney fees. The defense plans to appeal both the judge’s and jury’s decisions.
Jason Bissonnette began working at Highland Park Market as a deli clerk in May 1999 for $7 an hour, according to his lawyer, Emanuele “Manny” Cicchiello, of Cicchiello & Cicchiello in Hartford. The grocery chain has five locations statewide, in Manchester, Farmington, Glastonbury, Coventry and Suffield.
While employed at one of the stores, Bissonnette earned a degree from the University of Connecticut as a computer service technician. Highland Park Market then hired Bissonnette to serve as the company’s information technology specialist. Because the company had no other IT people, Bissonnette became the entire IT department and serviced computers in all of the store locations, according to Cicchiello.
“It was undisputed that he was a good employee,” said Cicchiello. “All he received were positive performance evaluations and raises throughout his entire employment.”
Cicchiello explained that Bissonnette’s job occasionally entailed some heavy lifting, as he had to replace servers and lift up computer stations in order to connect or disconnect wires.
As a result, Bissonnette hurt his back in November 2007. Despite the injury, the attorney said that Bissonnette took no time off and continued to perform all his duties, until June 2009. That’s when Bissonnette finally went forward with his spinal fusion surgery.
Earlier that year, in January 2009, Bissonnette had informed the company he needed the time off for the back injury. It took five months for the company to respond, according to court documents. At a meeting, the supermarket’s human resources manager, Rhett Beauchemin, told Bissonnette that the company did not believe the injury was job-related. Bissonette was told to switch his claim from a request for workers’ compensation benefits to his own personal health insurance.
Bissonnette refused to switch, filed a workers’ comp claim and took an unpaid leave of absence for the surgery under the Family Medical Leave Act. He returned to work in late September part time, per his doctors’ orders, though the company would refuse to meet his request for certain light duty accomodations. He was terminated about two weeks later.
Cicchiello said the company offered Bissonnette a severance package in which he had to agree not to sue. Bissonnette declined and hired Cicchiello.
“He gave a large part of his life and a significant portion of his back, and when he sought treatment he was entitled to they disregarded him,” said Cicchiello. “He felt his civil rights were severely violated and he was lied to. That’s why he pursued this litigation.”
Cicchiello said the company offered various conflicting reasons for Bissonnette’s termination.
“They said they were bleeding money and it was a financial decision to eliminate his position and have a third party do it for less money,” said Cicchiello. “But when you look at the contract with the third party, it was in fact for more money, and you could argue the plaintiff provided more service for the money.”
On the plaintiff’s employee file, the stated reason for termination is “lack of work,” according to court documents.
The case went to trial in July 2013 before Superior Court Judge A. Susan Peck. The trial lasted two weeks. Among those testifying was Highland Park Market’s owner and the human resources manager.
Cicchiello said that during cross-examination, the company’s owner admitted that had Bissonnette not gone out on leave for the back surgery, he would never have been terminated. “Cross-examination showed they were not credible. The jury obviously believed the plaintiff,” said Cicchiello.
The jury deliberated for a day-and-a-half before awarding Bissonnette $103,000, which amounted to his lost wages from the time he was let go until trial. The jury also decided that the plaintiff deserved punitive damages.
Highland Park Market was represented by James Howard, of Fiorentino, Howard & Petrone in Manchester. Howard referred comment to the supermarket’s newest lawyer – Peter Rydel, of Reid & Riege’s Hartford office — who was brought on to handle the appeals.
Following post-trial motions and briefing on the additional damages, Peck, earlier this month, awarded $411,000 in damages, which included the jury’s verdict, liquidated damages and interest, as well as roughly $125,000 in attorney fees and costs.
Rydel said an appeal will be filed soon. He argues that Peck calculated damages incorrectly and that the final total will end up to be substantially less. Rydel declined to discuss the merits of additional appeals in the case.
“We respect the jury’s verdict, but we don’t think it’s correct,” he said.