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Steve Dollar Wins Wrongful Termination Case

– By Steve Dollar

In Staci Elizondo v. Charles Frederick Tuffli, Jr.; Charles Tuffli, A Medical Corporation; Staff Resources, Inc.; and Sara St. Charles, No. 1-09-CV-144325, Steve Dollar prevailed on behalf of Staff Resources and their insurer, Chartis. In February 2006, plaintiff Staci Elizondo was hired as a medical biller by Charles Tuffli, A Medical Corporation, in San Jose. In January 2008, Elizondo reported to Staff Resources, Inc., the corporation's co-employer (a Professional Employer Organization or PEO, handling HR and payroll duties), that in August 2007, Tuffli threatened to kill her if she made another billing mistake. Elizondo claimed that she had previously notified Staff Resources Inc. of the threat in August 2007 and again in January 2008, but that claim was denied by the defendants.

Following the allegation, Tuffli and Staff Resources claimed that Elizondo was put on paid leave, while the matter was investigated by Sara St. Charles, an HR representative with Staff Resources. Elizondo, however, claimed she was terminated from employment by St. Charles, who told her to “pack up her stuff and go.” It is undisputed that Elizondo never returned to Tuffli and the corporation claimed it eventually terminated her from employment since her benefits and leave had expired.

Elizondo sued Charles Frederick Tuffli, Jr.; Charles Tuffli, A Medical Corporation; Staff Resources, Inc.; and Sara St. Charles. The case was tried on the issues of wrongful termination, retaliation and gender-based discrimination (the alleged termination). Prior to trial, St. Charles was voluntarily dismissed from the case. Plaintiff claimed that she was terminated from employment as an act of retaliation for making the complaint. Elizondo claimed she went on medical leave through Kaiser after January 2008, due to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Elizondo sought over $1 million in total damages, which included economic damages for lost earnings as well as non-economic damages for her emotional distress. Elizondo claimed she suffered post-traumatic stress disorder due to the ordeal and that she required another five years of psychiatric treatment, vocational rehabilitation counseling and additional education to retrain her to resume employment as a medical biller. Plaintiff claimed over $100,000 in past medical expenses and over $900,000 in future psychiatric treatment, vocational rehabilitation and training.

Defendants contended that Elizondo was never terminated from employment and simply didn't return when she was on paid leave and even extended the absence to medical leave through Kaiser. Defendants further claimed that they did not cause Elizondo any emotional distress. The jury rendered a defense verdict.