$80 million verdict for three workers fired for taking ‘off the record’ time off in California

Three former workers in a Northern California office of the Zurich American Insurance Co. who were fired after taking “off-the-record” paid time off were awarded more than $80 million in damages by a Sacramento jury Thursday, Sacramento attorney Lawrance Bohm announced.

The case stemmed from a lawsuit originally filed in 2018 that went to trial after Zurich American declined settlement offers starting at $150,000 for each of the three plaintiffs who worked at the insurer’s Gold River offices, Bohm said in an interview.

“I’m jubilant,” Bohm said. “It is shocking for an American-based insurance company that provides coverage to 90 percent of the Fortune 500 to have made a zero-dollar offer... This is vindication.”

Zurich American spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler said in an email response to The Sacramento Bee that the company does not comment on litigation, “So I have no comment to offer you.”

Wednesday’s verdict included damages for economic harm, reputational damages and $25 million in punitive damages for each of the employees — Melinda Brantley, Nicholas Lardie and Daniel Koos — who were part of Zurich American’s workers’ compensation division, Bohm spokesman Daniel Harary said in announcing the $80,252,412 verdict details.

Bohm’s spokesman said the three plaintiffs were fired in December 2017 after they followed a supervisor’s policy of taking “off the record” time off as an incentive for hard work.

The days off were called “Omen days,” referring to then-Assistant Vice President Chris Omen, court papers say.

“Omen offered free paid time off (‘PTO’) based on performance,” court papers say. “Employees in Omen’s department referred to the free paid time off as ‘Omen Days.’

“Omen’s free paid time off was used to reward employees who were performing at a high level or reached certain goals. The free paid time off rewards did not require any requests or entries in the official PTO system.

“If an employee used paid time off approved by Omen, the employee was instructed not to use any of Zurich’s official paid time off. On most occasions. Omen instructed the employee to ‘take a day off or delete the time off requests in the system and stated that ‘it’s on me,’ indicating that the employee earned the free paid time off.

“The entire Rancho Cordova branch was aware of and benefited from this unofficial rewards program.”

The three were fired days before Christmas 2017 after a brief investigation by the company, Bohm said.

Zurich American argued in court filings that the employees were fired after “time theft” that resulted in the three being paid a total of more than $100,000 over two years.

“Theft is not justified simply because your boss told you to do it,” the company argued. “Plaintiffs are three former managers at Zurich insurance company who were discovered to have under reported paid time off (PTO) at work.

“They admitted to engaging in this activity and explained it away by saying that their supervisor told them to do so.”

Bohm said Zurich American “maliciously defamed three very good people from our Sacramento community,” and that his clients did not want to be involved in a lawsuit.

Bohm initially offered to settle the case for $150,000 for each plaintiff but was rebuffed, he said. In 2021, he tried again, offering to settle for $500,000 each but was turned down. Finally, before trial began in Sacramento Superior Court last month, he offered to settle for $2 million per plaintiff but was told no, he said.

“Zurich has had years to prevent this and do right,” Bohm said, adding that company supervisors spent 71 minutes investigating the allegations against the employees before firing them.

“For a company that prides itself on fairness, that’s frightening,” he said. “Thousands of us in California have claims being handled by Zurich.

“If this is the way it treats its employees what does that mean about what we can expect from them when we need them?”