Great moments in law firm management?

by Walter Olson on March 18, 2012

According to the Sun-Sentinel, managers at the Deerfield Beach, Fla. real estate law firm of Elizabeth Wellborn fired 14 employees on Friday for wearing orange clothing. According to the report, an executive had been informed that the workers were wearing orange as a protest, but several employees told the newspaper that they knew of no protest and that they customarily wore orange on paydays so that they would appear as a group at a happy hour after work.

If the story checks out as reported — the law firm was recorded as having declined comment — expect to hear rumblings about how it refutes the American legal principle of “employment at will,” though it doesn’t actually refute that principle any more than the tale of a wastrel heir refutes the principle of inheritance.

{ 15 comments }

1 Greg Dwyer 03.18.12 at 10:58 am

According to one article I read, it was less of a protest and more of an insult. One of the new managers has a permanent fake tan.

2 Richard Nieporent 03.18.12 at 11:38 am

The head of the law firm must be an Irish Catholic.

3 cgage 03.18.12 at 11:45 am

You mean it wasn’t related to St Patricks Day?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Orange_Institution

4 John David Galt 03.18.12 at 1:55 pm

If bosses are free to fire you for expressing political views, then in effect, the campaign disclosure laws mean nobody in the US has free speech any longer except the self-employed. (And unions, who get to use money they extort from the rest of us schmucks.)

I do not see that as freedom. And I hope that even the IJ don’t, either.

5 Yeaah 03.18.12 at 5:33 pm

If the story checks out as reported, then it proves that some bosses are dumb jerks. Which is not a news for most people.

The debate over how the employment law should deal with the situation of dumb jerk bosses will not change a bit. Everybody will keep his previous opinions.

6 Chris Hoey 03.18.12 at 7:47 pm

If the employees got together to wear orange as a symbol of protest over conditions at the firm, and were fired for it, they appear to have a prima facie case of a violation of Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA. That Section prohibits discrimination against employees who act in concert for mutual aid to protest terms and conditions of employment. You don’t need a union in the picture to gain the protection of the NLRA, as it protects those who engage in concerted activities, in this case, the “wearing of the orange.”

7 David Schwartz 03.18.12 at 8:05 pm

John David Galt: Free speech doesn’t mean that other private individuals can’t (or even shouldn’t) impose negative consequences on you when you say things they disagree with. It’s important enough for me to retain the right to refuse to do business people who say things I consider to be very bad that I’m even willing to allow people to avoid doing business with me if they thing the things I say are that bad. In fact, if they’re that opposed to the things that I stand for, I wouldn’t want to do business with them anyway.

8 Yeaah 03.19.12 at 6:26 am

David Schwartz: The level of freedom in case you describe depends on how much power over me the private individual has. If he has a lot of power, for example the ability to make me and my family homeless (or killed if someone needs an extreme example), than I’m definitely not free in that situation.

For any practical purposes, my freedom in such situation is purely theoretical. I may be free from some government oppression or whatever, but I’m not free to speak my mind.

Of course, most employers do not have the power to make people homeless (you can get another job or start a business). However, your definition of freedom assumes some balance of power between individual players.

If it does not assume such thing, then we can conclude that the middle age feudal system was an extremely free society. After all, you could freely speak your mind, except that the private owner of the land you lived on could impose consequences for that on you (get you tortured and killed).

9 Anonymous Attorney 03.19.12 at 1:13 pm

JDG:

I agree. I depart from what I imagine to be the libertarian position here: I think free speech is a greater value than employement-at-will WHEN THE TWO ARE IN CONFLICT. You shouldn’t normally be able to fire someone for political belief or expression. That value is simply too important to throw people into homelessness over, and unless you can show how the speech interferes with the employer’s mission, I guess I don’t see how we’re better off if the anti-abortion protestor gets fired from DuPont or the immigration opponent gets fired from his job as a schoolteacher.

But I’m mostly uncomfortable with this for particular reasons: nobody with a left-wing view is likely to get fired from their government or big corporation job, but someone with a right-wing view certainly is. That’s what makes me laugh about all these OWS clowns: the “evil corporate America” you denounce would probably underwrite your camping trip if you let them. Convince Chevron to take a public stance against affirmative or gay marriage, and I’ll eat my words.

10 Carolina Divorce Lawyer 03.19.12 at 5:05 pm

So they weren’t Clemson fans?

Sounds extreme for 14 people to be dismissed for such a reason. Might there be more to it?

11 thomas mc 03.19.12 at 10:29 pm

I hope their biggest client shows up wearing an orange shirt, and fires them!

12 Melvin H. 03.19.12 at 10:59 pm

CDL, they were Denver Broncos fans.

13 Morris 03.20.12 at 11:05 am

Employment at will is the law in Florida and many other states. Basically, this means that you can be fired whenever the boss has a whim to do so.

However, what happened here is a different case. That’s because these people were fired for cause, namely, wearing orange. In order to be fired for cause, the “cause” must be bonafide, and yes, if the employee handbook says thou shalt not wear orange, that’s a bonafide cause, stupid as it may be. Problem is that there was no employee policy against wearing orange, or any other color.

So, when this gets in front of a judge and jury as it inevitably will, the jury will almost certainly find for the plaintiffs.

About this “law firm.” They’re a foreclosure mill, which speaks volumes about them from the get go.

14 antiredistributionist 03.20.12 at 1:24 pm

Morris – You are wrong. Unless the former employees have a contract that guarantees them employment for a certain term, under Florida law they can be fired for good cause, bad cause or no cause, but they can’t be fired for a discriminatory, retaliatory or other legally prohibited reason.

15 asdfasdf 03.21.12 at 1:22 am

Employees story not too plausible. Wearing orange shirts to “look like a team” at Happy Hour? And how come only one employee, not the other 13, came up with this brilliant story when asked?

Employer’s story seems rather more likely: employees were mocking a manager’s physical appearance by wearing the orange shirts. Comments in the article state that the protest was arranged by internal office email, but obviously such internet comments are generally not to be taken seriously.

Even so, I am not sure I understand why people are swallowing employees’ story hook, line, and sinker. It may be true, I guess, but it requires a lot of coincidence to believe: that employees all wear same color shirt to be seen as a team at Happy Hour; that this color happens to mock physical appearance of manager; that only one employee agreed with this theory when asked; and that a law firm would fire 14 employees for no reason at all.

Yes, if all these things were simultaneously true, then the firing was capricious. I have zero knowledge of the actual facts here, but employer’s story (employees arranged a protest to mock a manager’s appearance) is simpler, more plausible, and better fits the facts as reported.

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