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For Robert and Loreen Zink, Nov. 13, 1998, started out practically perfect. The couple decided to take a rare morning off from work and relax in their hot tub with a bottle of champagne. They reflected on how lucky it was that they both landed jobs at a dive shop chain called Holiday Diver in Key Largo, Fla. — their dream come true after many years of living and working in the colder climes of the Midwest. With an annual income of more than $100,000, they could live quite well in Key Largo. But the day soon turned into one of the worst of their lives. Later that day, they both were fired by the dive company. They immediately realized they would not be able to find other jobs that paid so well, and thus they’d be forced to move and pull their learning-disabled daughter out of the high school she loved in Key Largo, in the middle of her senior year. Claiming their firing amounted to age discrimination, the Zinks filed suit in U.S. District Court in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. against Holiday Diver Inc. of Deerfield Beach. They sued under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Florida Civil Rights Act of 1992 for declaratory, injunctive and damages relief, as well as attorneys’ fees and expenses. In addition, claiming their health insurance was illegally canceled without their knowledge, they also sued for misappropriation of insurance premiums under the provisions of the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985. Attorneys on both sides requested a magistrate judge rather than a U.S. district judge for the sake of speed. On July 2, Magistrate Judge Barry Seltzer granted summary judgment against Loreen Zink, thus dismissing her case. But last month, a jury found for Robert Zink, deciding that his age was a “substantial or motivating factor” in the termination and that management at Holiday Diver acted with malice or reckless indifference to his rights. The jury awarded Zink more than $250,000 — $200,000 in lost wages, $51,000 in pain and suffering, and $20,000 in punitive damages. That amount does not include future earnings, which Seltzer has not yet ruled on, or attorneys’ fees. “This feels good, it feels like justice,” says Robert Zink, 51. “I went from making $88,000 that morning to zero by the end of the day. This could have destroyed us.” The victory was just as sweet for the Zinks’ lawyers, Karen and Bill Amlong, of Amlong & Amlong in Fort Lauderdale who prevailed against their nemesis, Jon Stage, a partner at Akerman Senterfitt’s Fort Lauderdale office who was representing the diving company. Last year, Stage persuaded U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard to order sanctions against the Amlongs in a separate employment lawsuit against Denny’s restaurants and two of its managers. The Amlongs may have to pay more than half a million dollars in attorneys’ fees to Stage and other defense lawyers in the case for filing what Lenard deemed a frivolous lawsuit. “This was sweet,” says Karen Amlong, who admits she still holds a grudge against Stage. “Do I have hard feelings? It’s not like Captain Hook and the crocodile, but sure I do.” Stage declined to comment on the case. Robert Zink previously spent 20 years working for Kmart, ending his career there as a district manager. In 1995, he landed the job of sales manager at Holiday Diver in Key Largo, and ultimately was promoted to vice president and general manager for the four-store chain. He claims that he helped boost annual sales from $3 million to $9 million by the time he left. His wife, then 41, was also hired by the company in 1995 as a part-time interior design and display employee. In 1997, the company moved its headquarters to Deerfield Beach. The Zinks did not want to move their daughter, who had a little more than one year left of high school. So Robert opted to take a demotion and manage the Key Largo store. His salary was not reduced. Then in September 1998, Loreen Zink was offered a promotion to assistant manager of one of the two Holiday Diver Key Largo stores, at an annual salary of $28,000. Knowing that the person currently holding that position, a 29-year-old man, was earning $35,000 a year plus a bonus, she turned it down. Two weeks later, Holiday Diver promoted a 23-year-old salesperson to the position, paying her $33,000, according to the lawsuit. On that Friday in November, as Robert Zink was locking up the store at the end of the day, company president Kevin Senecal, then 29, showed up. He notified Zink that he was being replaced that day. The reason given for the termination, according to Zink: “lack of communications skills.” “This came out of the blue,” says Zink. “There had been no discussion of this whatsoever.” Zink asked Senecal, “What about my wife?” He says Senecal replied: “She’s gone, too.” In his affidavit to the court, Senecal gave a different version of events. He says he fired Robert Zink because he failed to properly train his employees, something he insists that he clearly documented in Zink’s reviews. Senecal also alleges that Zink failed to effectively communicate with his co-workers and direct supervisor, and failed to cooperate with security personnel. Zink denied the allegations. Zink insisted that the real reason he was replaced had to do with was his age. The Zinks say Senecal wanted to bring in a younger crew to take over, including some of his college buddies. Richard Zink points to a quote on the Holiday Diver Web page — which has since been removed — as evidence of an age bias at the company. The quote read: “The young do not know enough to be prudent, they therefore attempt the impossible and achieve it generation after generation.” In addition, according to Zink, a 29-year-old was appointed manager of the four stores, but was allowed to work out of Key Largo — something Zink had not been allowed to do. Making matters worse after they were fired, the Zinks alleged, Senecal terminated their health insurance on Nov. 30, 1998, after promising to continue their coverage until February 1999. Even so, Holiday Diver allegedly took premiums for the promised three months of additional coverage out of their severance package. Senecal, in an affidavit, said the Zinks’ coverage was terminated due to a “clerical error.” In the affidavit, Senecal offered to either return the three months of health insurance premiums or reimburse the Zinks for health care costs they incurred during that period. As part of their judgment, the Zinks soon will receive this money, say their attorneys. When he rules on the issue of future earnings, Judge Seltzer could order Holiday Diver to reinstate the Zinks, who now own a small water sports shop in Punta Gorda. But Karen Amlong predicts that Seltzer instead will order a monetary award to the Zinks for lost future earnings. Amlong is asking for an additional $114,000 in attorneys’ fees.

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