By Dustin Luca
---- — ANDOVER — An Andover-based debt-collection law firm has been ordered by a jury to pay $1 million after losing a federal civil rights case brought by a former employee in its Kentucky call center.
The verdict against Zwicker and Associates, handed down Friday by a 12-person jury in U.S. District Court in Convington, Ky., awards $1 million in damages to Clinton Burton, 42, a former employee in the firm’s Hebron, Ky., debt-collections center.
The company intends to appeal the judgment, according to Robert Thuotte, executive vice president and corporate counsel for Zwicker and Associates in Andover.
The jury determined that Burton, an African-American, was wrongfully fired from his management job at the Hebron office in 2010, according to a press release announcing the verdict.
About 300 of Zwicker’s nearly 1,000 employees nationwide are based out of the Hebron office. Zwicker’s Andover facility, located on Minuteman Road, houses its corporate offices.
Barbara Bonar, a member of Burton’s legal counsel, said the Hebron office was “filled with racist comments and racist behaviors that outraged the jury. The jury responded to that, and most of their verdict was based on the lack of credibility with Zwicker and Associates witnesses.”
The company’s defense attorneys argued that Burton was fired for mocking a fellow co-worker, according to the release.
Thuotte said the company is “both shocked and saddened by the recent jury verdict in favor of this former employee at their Kentucky facility.”
The company “finds the jury verdict contrary to their commitment to equality, dignity and respect in the workplace,” Thuotte said. “Had management at Zwicker been aware of the alleged remarks or behavior in the workplace, they would have taken immediate steps to rectify the situation and hold those responsible accountable.”
The Hebron office, in northern Kentucky, is located “truly where the North meets the South,” Bonar said. “There’s a lot of thinking in the North that racism still doesn’t exist, but in the South, it does.”
According to Bonar, Burton’s lawsuit, initiated three years ago, is one of several involving Zwicker’s Kentucky office. Prior to Burton’s case going to trial, five other cases were in motion and more are expected following the jury decision, she said.
The $1 million decision includes $300,000 to cover Burton’s lost wages, $100,000 for emotional distress and another $600,000 for punitive damages, according to the release.
The punitive damages stem from the company’s actions during the lawsuit, when Burton was “asked to support the company and was pulled into meeting after meeting with attorneys suggesting — basically demanding — that he change his story to support the company” in its other cases, Bonar said.
“He refused to do so,” she said. “That verdict was based on the jury’s response to this company pulling the plaintiff into meetings and demanding that he testify, basically, to commit perjury.”
Thuotte said the firm denies that allegation, and in saying that the majority of the damages “are related to a claim for a public policy tort,” the company “denied that the alleged conduct ever occurred, and the verdict on that claim is being appealed, as is the verdict on the other claims.”
“The firm denies all of the claims,” Thuotte said, “as we testified to at the trial.”
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