A Verizon lifer, Suzette Walker climbed from high school intern to "turf" engineer over more than three decades at the phone giant, compiling a stellar work record but for one apparent blemish: a poor employee evaluation in 2013 when she took approved family leave for shoulder surgery.
So it came as a shock when Walker's supervisor informed the North Philadelphia woman in 2015 — even after a good review, a pay raise and bonus earlier in the year — that she would lose her job, paying about $93,000, as part of Verizon's latest round of cutbacks in the legacy landline business.
She sued, and after a five-day civil trial in May, an eight-person federal jury found that Verizon discriminated against Walker for her age and retaliated against her for taking the leave, awarding her $454,000. Judge Harvey Bartle III later added $359,571 in attorneys fees, damages and interest, taking the total against Verizon to $813,571.
On Aug. 25, Bartle rejected Verizon's request for a new trial, saying Walker's supervisors "did not engage in the formal rate and rank process to make their termination decision. Instead, they spoke by telephone and orally agreed to select Walker for termination."
In asking for a new trial, Verizon said Walker failed to present "a scintilla of evidence" to support her claims and contended the jury might have been confused by the complexity of the law.
"Although we respect the role of the jury and the court, we believe that in this case, they got it wrong," Verizon spokesman Michael Murphy said in a statement. "Verizon is reviewing our options before making any decision on whether to appeal."
Attorney Christine E. Burke, who represented Walker, said employees expect companies to follow corporate policies during cutbacks, and many companies don't understand the implications of the Family and Medical Leave Act. It enables eligible employees to take off for 12 weeks of unpaid leave for medical or family reasons. Walker testified she needed the surgery after a SEPTA turnstile whacked her in the shoulder.
"Employers do not realize that while they are trying to run a business, even if family medical leave interrupts operations, they cannot count the leaves as negative factors in any employment action," said Burke.
The case highlights some of the issues facing Verizon's landline business as customers drop its copper-based internet and phone services, forcing the company to cut costs in an aging workforce. Verizon has sold many of these landline businesses but has retained those operations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and other northeastern states. Verizon also operates one of the nation's top two wireless carriers, employing about 160,000 people between the landline and wireless businesses.
Walker reported to Verizon's facility at Ninth and Race Streets in Center City Philadelphia and supervised some of the effort to upgrade Verizon's copper network in the city for high-speed data and FIOS services.
She recounted in her testimony how stunned she was to lose her job and the emotional toll it has taken.
"I felt embarrassed; I felt hurt," Walker testified. She said she gained 40 pounds after losing her job. "I felt I had done something wrong," she said. "All I did all day was cook, clean, eat, and just sit in the corner sometimes. I wouldn't turn the television on, wouldn't turn the radio on. I just didn't want to be around people."