A supervisor at a Florida Real Estate company who fired an employee on jury duty may have to face a jury herself. As in most states, terminating someone for reporting to jury duty is illegal in Florida. Now the former employee of Island Title 5 Star Agency is suing in excess of $15,000. Her supervisor at the real estate company contends, however, that she fired her subordinate for legitimate reasons.
Jane Trejo-Beverly (pictured at left) was No. 426 out of 500 on the jury duty list at the Collier Courthouse in Naples, so didn’t expect she’d have to serve. But when she called up the jury hotline after her company’s holiday dinner, she found out that her number was up. She would have to report at 8:30 the next morning.
Trejo-Beverly says that she immediately texted her office manager, emailed details to several supervisors, and texted her office manager again the next morning. The office manager said she was aware that Trejo-Beverly would be absent.
But during a later break, Trejo-Beverly listened to her voicemail and discovered that, just over a month after she’d started working at Title 5, and less than two weeks before Christmas, she’d been fired.
“I can’t believe you didn’t give enough notice that you were going to be out of the office,” Trejo-Beverly says Dawn Norgren, her boss, recorded on her voicemail. “Our working relationship isn’t working out. I’m going to have to terminate you.”
Trejo-Beverly says that she called Norgren back, and explained that she had given as much notice as she could. “There wasn’t anything pending on my desk,” she says. “It wasn’t like ‘I can’t believe you dropped the ball’ or anything like that.”
Norgren allegedly wouldn’t even let Trejo-Beverly return to the office on Marco Island to pick up her belongings.
Trejo-Beverly started crying. She had only started the job in mid-November, after her wedding planning business foundered in the struggling economy. “In this day and age, it’s tough to get a job,” she says. “I took a pay cut to get this job. I was grateful.”
A court clerk noticed that Trejo-Beverly was upset, and asked her what was wrong. Trejo-Beverly explained what had happened, and the clerk informed her that it was against the law to terminate someone for serving on jury duty.
“I didn’t know that the employer could be in contempt of court,” she says. “I didn’t know that.”
The judge later called a 15-minute break, and asked Trejo-Beverly to explain her situation again. In just a few hours, Norgren was summoned to the court for a misdemeanor contempt charge. She pleaded not guilty.
“Whatever happened on that day, it was enough to suggest to the trial judge that a crime had occurred,” said Bernard Mazaheri, an attorney at the law firm Morgan & Morgan who is representing Trejo-Beverly. He filed a lawsuit last Friday at the very same courthouse where Trejo-Beverly reported for jury duty.
Company officials say that Trejo-Beverly was fired because of her performance. It was her first 90 days on the job, which is an official probationary period. Robert Leeber, the owner of Title 5, says that, in the company’s 30-year existence, 15 of its employees have served jury duty without any issue and with full pay.
“There’s more to this than meets the eye here. It will all come out because of the lawsuit,” Leeber told the Naples Daily News.
“I’ve yet to have an employer not come up with a reason for terminating someone,” says Mazaheri. “It’s pretext. Whether or not an employer chose not to violate the law in the past doesn’t mean they didn’t violate it in this instance.”
Trejo-Beverly says there were no issues with her performance, and Norgren didn’t mention any reason like that during their phone conversation. At the Christmas party the evening before, “everyone had been raving about my progress at the company,” she claims.
Mazaheri points out that in Florida all employees are presumed to be “at will,” which means they can be fired for any reason as long as it isn’t illegal. “Employers terminate employees at a whim,” he says. “Employees don’t have confidence that they’ll have a job tomorrow. They could say ‘I don’t like the color of your shirt, you’re fired.’ ”
But firing someone for reporting to jury duty is one of the few reasons not permitted by Florida law. “What this employer did was basically attack the whole judicial system,” Mazaheri says.
Trejo-Beverly is seeking compensatory damages, punitive damages and attorney’s fees. “I wanted to protect my name and my reputation,” says Trejo-Beverly. “I grew up here. I don’t want someone like them to tarnish my reputation. It’s been really tough to get a full-time job.”
Dawn Norgren could not be reached for comment.