Fired Reservist Receives $35K in Settlement of DOJ’s Lawsuit Under USERRA Against Employer

Employers mess with employees’ rights to military leave at their peril, as a communications company based in New York found out recently. The case also illustrates the risk of not having a policy on military leaves.

Cohere Communications and its president Steven Francesco agreed to pay $35,000 to a former employee to settle alleging the defendants violated his rights to take military leave under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced today.

The Justice Department brought this suit on behalf of reservist William Pfunk, who began working at the Manhattan company in 2011. Pfunk, a member of the U.S. Army Reserves with the rank of staff sergeant, received orders in early April 2012 requiring him to report to a four-day training company on April 9, 2012. But when Pfunk notified Francesco that due to his military obligation he would be absent from work during the week of April 9, Francesco allegedly referred to his obligations as “elective activities” and terminated his employment immediately.

It was all downhill from there. Pfunk asked to discuss the situation with Francesco upon his return from military service, but Francesco declined, according to court documents in the case.  Subsequently, Francesco refused a Department of Defense agency request to reemploy Pfunk.

When Pfunk informed Francesco that he believed his rights under USERRA had been violated and that he would be seeking legal counsel if Franceso was not willing to resolve the matter, Francesco responded, “If you want a war, I can impact your life more than you can screw with mine” and advised Pfunk that he was “not to stop by for any reason.”   

The court rejected defendants’ argument that Pfunk was an intern rather than an employee-and thus outside the law’s protections–and entered summary judgment for DOJ, following which this settlement ensued.

Besides pay the $35,000, the defendants also have to implement a policy for  military leave absences.

Here’s the U.S. attorney’s announcement of the settlement.

And here’s a Department of Labor fact sheet on job rights for veterans and reserve member components.

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