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Veloz v. Sears, Roebuck and Co.

United States District Court, C.D. California

July 13, 2017

Daniel Veloz PLAINTIFF(S)
v.
Sears, Roebuck and Co. DEFENDANT(S).

          HONORABLE STEPHEN V. WILSON, U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE

          JUDGMENT ON THE VERDICT FOR DEFENDANT

         This action having been tried before the Court sitting with a jury, the Honorable Stephen V. Wilson District Judge, presiding; the issues having been duly tried and the jury having duly rendered its verdict.

         IT IS ORDERED AND ADJUDGED that the plaintiff(s):

         Daniel Veloz take from the Defendant Sears, Roebuck and Co.

         consistent with the Court's attached Order. Judgment on the verdict is entered for the Defendant on the first, second, third, fourth, eighth, ninth, and tenth causes of action. Judgment as a matter of law is entered for the Defendant on the fifth and sixth causes of action. Judgment as a matter of law is entered for the Plaintiff on the seventh cause of action.

         Damages, costs, and fees shall be determined by a later stipulation or motion.

         Proceedings: IN CHAMBERS ORDER ALLOWING JUDGMENT ON THE VERDICT AND DIRECTING THE ENTRY OF JUDGMENT AS A MATTER OF LAW [127].

         Plaintiff Daniel Veloz ("Plaintiff) brought this action against Defendant Sears, Roebuck and Co. ("Defendant" or "Sears"), for various causes of action related to Ins termination[1] The Plaintiff worked at Sears as a Loss Prevention Associate, where his job was to address loss prevention issues, such as apprehending shoplifting suspects. While on duty, the Plaintiff was injured when a shoplifting suspect stabbed him outside of the store when the Plaintiff ran outside. The Plaintiff then went on disability leave while healing from the stab wounds. The Plaintiff returned to work but was terminated by Sears shortly thereafter. The Plaintiff contended that he was terminated as the result of his disability or his medical leave, while Sears maintained that he was fired for violating its policy regarding the apprehension of shoplifters.

         After the Court denied Defendant's summary judgment motions, this case proceeded to a jury trial on June 27, 2017. Dkt. 120. After the conclusion of the evidence and the closing arguments by the parties, both parties orally submitted motions for judgment as a matter of law."[2] The Court did not giant either motion and the action was submitted to the jury. The jury was given seven questions to answer on the case, allowing the jury to find for either the Plaintiff or the Defendant on the relevant causes of action.[3] Dkt. 127. On June 29, 2017. the jury returned a verdict for the Defendant on the fast six questions and a verdict for the Plaintiff on the seventh question.

         Based on the answers of the jury and the legal analysis contained in this Order, the Court now ALLOWS judgment on the verdict for the Defendant on the first, second, thud, fourth, eighth, ninth, and tenth causes of action: DIRECTS the entry of judgment as a matter of law for the Defendant on the fifth and sixth causes of action, which is the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim: and DIRECTS the entry of judgment as a matter of law for the Plaintiff on the seventh cause of action for failure to provide employment records on request.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         The facts of this case are fairly straightforward and for the most part are undisputed by the parties. The central dispute of this action was whether the true motivation for the Defendant's termination of the Plaintiff was unlawful discrimination on the basis of his disability or medical leave, or whether the true motivation was the Plaintiffs violation of a store policy. The factual disputes in this case have now been resolved by the jury and its verdict. Therefore, the Court includes a summary of the facts of this case and the areas of dispute for convenience's sake.

         A. The Plaintiff and His Training

         worked for the Defendant as a Loss Prevention Associate at a store located in Pasadena, California. He began his employment on May 2, 2014, at which time he acknowledged his receipt of the Sears Employee Handbook. The acknowledgement provides, "I understand and agree to abide by and be bound by the rules, policies, and standards set forth in the Handbook and Company policy." As part of his employment, the Plaintiff received training on how to perform his job duties. This training included learning about Sears' anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation policies, as well as safety training specifically designed for Loss Prevention Associates. The Plaintiff performed a series of online trainings as well as on-the-job trainings. He learned how to detect and apprehend shoplifters. He learned how to keep a safe distance when observing a suspect. Importantly, he learned that he should never chase a shoplifting subject and that he could not attempt to apprehend a suspect past the store's boundaries, which he believed to be the sidewalk outside of the store. In other words, the Plaintiff understood from his training that if a suspect passed the established boundaries of the store, he was supposed to discontinue the apprehension of the shoplifter. These policies were put in place by Sears in order to ensure that safety came first.

         B. The Incident Involving the Shoplifter and Plaintiffs Resulting Injury

         On April 20, 2017, Plaintiff was stabbed by a shoplifter. That evening, he was monitoring the interior of the store through the video camera feed when he was alerted to the presence of a possible shoplifter. The Plaintiff alerted his co-worker and fellow Loss Prevention Associate, Erick Villanueva, that Plaintiff had noticed a suspicious man in the store. Villanueva then observed the suspect in person while the Plaintiff continued to observe the suspect from the surveillance monitors. The Plaintiff told Villanueva that he had seen the suspect take two drills from a display.

         The suspect then exited the store without paying for the drills. Villanueva followed the suspect. The Plaintiff then ran out of the Merchandise Pick Up doors, although he admitted that he knew that Villanueva was supposed to apprehend the suspect.[4] The Plaintiff then encountered the suspect and identified himself as a Sears Loss Prevention Associate, telling the suspect to come back to the Sears offices with him. Instead, the suspect stabbed the Plaintiff in his left and right arm using a knife, injuring the Plaintiff significantly. The Plaintiff was taken to a hospital and treated for his injury. The Plaintiff informed Sears in a written statement that he had been stabbed on Sears Way, beyond the sidewalk outside of the store.

         C. The Plaintiffs Subsequent Medical Leave and Termination

         After the Plaintiffs injury, the Defendant gave him a leave of absence from April 21, 2015, until he returned to work on May 19, 2015. During his leave, the Plaintiff was in communication with Sears' Workers' Compensation carrier, Sedgwick. On May 15, 2015, the Plaintiffs doctor indicated that the Plaintiff could return to work with certain restrictions. The Plaintiff never contacted Sears' Centralized Leave Management Team to request additional leave beyond what he was granted. He also did not contact anybody at the Sears Human Resources department to request additional leave, and did not submit any paperwork asking for a further leave of absence. However, he does contend that he told Sedgwick that he was not ready to return to work and requested a further leave of absence from them.

         Following the April 20 incident, an employee at the store notified Jeff Young, an employee of Sears responsible for investigating these types of matters, about the incident and the nature of the Plaintiff s injury. On April 21, 2015, Yoimg visited the Pasadena location to review the surveillance video and spoke with Villanueva about the incident. Villanueva also provided a witness statement. Villanueva stated that he began running in the direction of the suspect, but when the suspect ran into the parking lot, he fumed around and went back to recover the merchandise. That Villanueva retrieved the drills was confirmed via the surveillance video. As a result of his investigation. Young concluded that the Plaintiff had not used good judgment when he left the boundaries of the store and confronted the suspect.

         On May 19, 2017, the Plaintiff returned to work with restrictions. The restrictions listed by the Plaintiffs doctor included: no lifting or carrying, no pushing or pulling, no climbing, no crawling, no reaching above shoulder, no reaching outward, no handling/fingering, and no driving. The restrictions allowed the Plaintiff to bend, squat/kneel, twist/rum, stand, walk, or sit frequently. The Defendant contended dining trial that the Plaintiff never communicated to anyone at Sears that his restrictions were not being respected. The Defendant also contended that the Plaintiff never was forced to participate in restricted activities. However, the Plaintiff again contended that he informed the Defendant's agent, Sedgwick, that he was not yet ready to return to work due to his disability and that he needed additional leave. He also contended that he never received the modified duties that were promised to his doctor. Instead, he returned to his normal duties, which required him to hold, carry, and lift objects in addition to performing apprehensions, which caused him discomfort and pain. He testified during trial that he spent time in the video room after his return to work, but that he was also asked to perform activities that cause him pain and should have been restricted by the doctor's note.

         After the Plaintiff returned to work, he provided three statements regarding the incident. These statements largely confirm the preceding version of events, including that the Plaintiff was stabbed on the street beyond the store's sidewalk. The Plaintiff confirmed that he understood Sears' Apprehension Policy, including that stops should not be made outside of the store's boundary.

         Young, together with Human Resources and Tess Viall, the Store Manager, determined that the Plaintiff should be terminated. The reason given for the termination was that the Plaintiff violated the store's policy prohibiting Loss Prevention personnel from pursuing suspects beyond a store's boundary. On June 5, 2017, the Plaintiff was informed by Viall that he was being terminated for violating Sears' policies, although the Plaintiff did not recall if he was told that he had specifically violated the boundary policy.

         The Plaintiff disputed during trial that he was terminated because he violated the boundary policy. In fact, he maintained during trial that he did not actually violate the boundary policy, which only forbids store personnel from leaving the boundary in order to apprehend a shoplifter. The Plaintiff repeatedly emphasized to the jury that he left the store when he lost contact with his partner, Villanueva, and therefore sought to check on his partner's safety. Then, while trying to ascertain his partner's whereabouts, he was run over by the fleeing shoplifter and eventually stabbed. Therefore. Plaintiffs counsel argued during trial that a violation of the boundary policy could not have been the reason for his termination because he never in fact violated the policy. Plaintiffs counsel also emphasized that Villanueva was not terminated as a result of the incident even though he also violated several of the Defendant's policies, including the boundary policy.

         The Plaintiff also contended that Young acted improperly during the course of his investigation. He argued that Young concluded that Plaintiff had exercised bad judgment and violated the boundary policy only after he had heard that the Plaintiff had required surgery but before actually speaking with the Plaintiff. The Plaintiff also contended that Young directed Sears employees to interfere with the Plaintiffs medical leave and rash him back to work. This plan included contacting the Plaintiffs doctor directly, a violation of Sears policy, and persuading the Plaintiffs doctor to allow ...


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