A Jury Duty Refresher and Warning

Contributed by Julie Proscia

Lesson number one:      Know the Federal and State rules regarding jury duty;

Lesson number two:      When a Judge sends you a letter do NOT throw it away.

In a recent turn of events a federal judge, Judge Holderman, appointed a lawyer to represent an employee that was terminated while serving jury duty in his court room. The employee was hired as a sales associate by HHGregg in August 2011. In January of 2012, the employee was called for jury duty by the federal district court for Northern Illinois. He was picked for the panel and notified his employer that the trial could last as long as 10 or 12 weeks.

The trial began on a Thursday, and the employee reported for work the following Saturday. On Saturday the employee informed his manager that he couldn’t meet his Sunday work schedule. Approximately two hours later, the manager called the employee into his office and fired him, allegedly stating that the employee was being terminated for not meeting his sales quotas. While the employee had previously received counseling regarding his low sales numbers, he had never been disciplined.

The employee notified Judge Holderman of the termination and his belief that the termination was related to jury duty. Lesson Number one: Know the law, under both the Federal and Illinois judicial systems, employees cannot be terminated or retaliated against for serving on a jury. Although there is no Federal or Illinois law that requires employers to pay non-exempt employees for their service, they cannot be retaliated against for being called or selected for service. Because the employee was called for federal jury duty, federal law applied. Under federal law, the presiding judge can investigate the termination to determine if the termination appears to have been based on the employee’s jury service; if the Judge finds “probable merit” that the termination was related to the service the Judge can appoint a lawyer to plead the juror’s case and initiate a lawsuit against the company. And this, my friends, is exactly what happened.

First, Judge Holderman sent correspondence to the HHGregg store management, requesting an explanation regarding the employee’s termination. No response was given. Lesson number two: Do not blow off the judge. When no response was given the court proceeded to investigate the matter. During the investigation Judge Holderman learned that virtually all the sales associates were still “on a draw” for potential commissions, many were failing to meet their quotas, and only one other associate had been disciplined, but not terminated, for low sales. This news likely did not endear the company to the court. Instead the problem was compounded when the court learned that the company has a policy that requires employees on jury duty to be paid minimum wage for the first 30 days and one-half minimum wage after that. This led to the belief that the employee was terminated to avoid the payment of wages and this belief resulted in the appointment of counsel and a result that will likely not be favorable for the company.

Moral of the lessons learned, know your state and federal jury duty laws, if you do not know them, call your labor and employment attorneys for advice prior to effectuating an adverse action. Terminations during jury service appear suspect; make sure you have a good trail to explain why the termination is based on a legitimate business reason. And if a Judge knocks on the door don’t hide behind the door and pretend that you are not home — it did not work when we were teenagers, it is not going to work now. 

In re Henders, N.D.Ill., No. 12-c-1147 (Feb. 17, 2012).