Frivolous Employment Suit Costs Lawyer

July 27, 2001 ( federal judge has slapped a lawyer with an $8,800 bill for filing a frivolous employment lawsuit.

Federal Judge Donald M. Middlebrooks of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida ruled that Charles Whitelock, a prominent Fort Lauderdale lawyer, submitted a “baseless retaliation claim” — and ordered him to pay $8,800 in legal fees to A.E. Products, a 23-employee electronics manufacturer in Palm Beach County, Florida.

According to the Miami Daily Business Review, those sanctions may be imposed to punish lawyers and make them pay opposing counsel’s legal fees if the judge determines that the offending lawyer filed pleadings:

  • in bad faith to run up the costs of litigation or
  • that were not properly researched or had no factual basis

The sanctions ruling arose from an employment discrimination and retaliation case filed June 6, 2000, in federal court in Miami.

Case History

According to the lawsuit, Arlinda Luzunaris of Palm Beach Gardens contended she was fired on April 5, 2000, because she is Puerto Rican and because her employer found out that she was a witness in another employee’s equal opportunity case against the company. The timing of that complaint, filed last year by Vickie Gordon, an African-American employee of A&E Products, would prove to be critical.

A.E. Products company president Allina said he fired Luzunaris because he discovered that she had broken into secure computer files to obtain confidential salary and personnel information. A.E. Products president Allina said he inadvertently found the information — which was only accessible with a secret password – while looking up client data on Luzunaris’ work computer.

Unsure as to how to deal with the situation, Allina said he waited for several days before confronting Luzunaris. When she refused to confirm or deny that she had accessed the confidential information, they fired her, according to the unemployment documents.

Battery Charge

At that point, Luzunaris reportedly became angry and threw a full can of Pepsi at Allina, punched him in the chest, and tore document bins off the walls. That’s when he called police, who charged Luzunaris with battery.

Ultimately Allina says the employees, armed with the salary numbers provided by Luzunaris, demanded a meeting a month after Luzunaris’ departure and insisted on a 25% pay raise, as well as pay cuts for management. Allina rejected those demands.

In refuting the discrimination claim, Allina said that he could not have fired Luzunaris in retaliation for her role in the Gordon complaint — which was filed on June 9 — months prior to the April incidents involving Luzunaris. Additionally, that filing did not reference Luzunaris as a witness.

Fact Check

Despite those facts, attorney Whitelock proceeded to file an amended complaint reiterating his client’s assertion that Luzunaris was fired because Allina knew she was a witness to an E.O. complaint.

Whitelock said he had to take his client’s word about how and when the alleged events occurred. He further noted that by law he was not permitted to view the E.O. file, which is confidential until the case is closed, except to the parties involved.

– Nevin Adams