The two attorneys representing former Bridgeport Hospital employee Lucie Lukachik knew going into the trial earlier this month they had their work cut out for them. There was no smoking gun against the hospital in its termination of Lukachik for requesting family leave time to deal with mental health concerns.
Going into what ended up being a three-day trial in Bridgeport Superior Court, Ruane Attorneys At Law litigators Stephen Lebedevitch and Jason Lipsky said they focused on Lukachik’s own testimony, the credibility of hospital staff, and the alleged illegal punishment of Lukachik for taking time off to deal with her mental health issues. The hospital fired Lukachik on April 11, 2014.
On May 21, a six-person jury sided with Lukachik, and awarded the former patient care technician $345,000 in economic and noneconomic damages.
The two attorneys split their duties down the middle: Lebedevitch did the opening and the direct examination of Lukachik and several other witnesses, while Lipsky handled the closing and cross-examination of some of the defense witnesses.
At the heart of the case, Lipsky said, were subtleties.
“Discrimination cases are often focused on hidden intent,” Lipsky said. “We had to work very hard to convince the jury to make all of these little connections to reach the conclusion of discriminatory intent.”
First, plaintiff counsel had to show the jury their client was treated differently and often unfairly disciplined for taking time off periodically over the 10 years she worked at the hospital. They brought in evidence that supported that claim, by demonstrating, for example, that the 61-year-old Lukachik received write-ups after her first Family and Medical Leave Act leave was approved in 2010.
“One of our crucial points was to show the jury she was being punished,” Lipsky said. “In one instance, she received a three-day suspension without pay, whereas other similarly situated workers received verbal warnings for the same conduct.” The conduct, the attorney said, dealt with the care of one specific patient at the hospital.
“They attempted to cover up the reason why they were treating her differently,” Lipsky said.
Lebedevitch said the best witness in the case was his client. It was essential, he said, to put Lukachik up close and personal with the jury.
“It was so important that the jury understood her story,” he said. “From hearing her story, they got to see how credible she was. It’s been four and a half years and she was able to recall events like they happened yesterday. Her testimony never changed, whether from what she told CHRO [Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities] to what she said on the stand.”
Lipsky said Lukachik is satisfied with the jury’s award.
“She is pleased and wants to thank the jurors for their attentiveness throughout the trial,” he said. “Although she wanted to work until she was 70 years old, she feels justice has been done.”
The hospital was represented by Michael LaVelle and Martha Royston of Pullman & Comley. The attorneys referred all comments to the hospital.
In a statement shared with the Connecticut Law Tribune, hospital spokeswoman Dana Marmane said: “Bridgeport Hospital prides itself on respecting the individual diversity of all of our patients and employees. We are very disappointed in Monday’s verdict as the respectful treatment of our staff and patients is our highest priority, now and always.”
Marmane said the hospital is looking at all options, including a possible challenge before the Connecticut Appellate Court.
The hospital denied any wrongdoing, and suggested Lukachik’s supervisor, Jean Walker, did not discipline the plaintiff because of any disability.
There “is no evidence that could create a genuine issue of fact to support the accusation of intentional discrimination,” defense attorneys wrote in the motion for summary judgment. “Jean Walker knew of the plaintiff’s mental condition only because the plaintiff disclosed it while utilizing Family and Medical Leave. … A claim of disability discrimination cannot be sustained simply because an employee was fired and had a disability. There must be some evidence that the employee was fired because she had a disability.”