Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer John Shiffman reports in an article titled, “A.C. firm must pay fired trio $4 million”:
No one ever solved the mystery of who stole $4,000 from a desk at the telemarketing offices of a Jersey Shore time-share, or even whether any crime was really committed at all.
But this much is known: Three company employees – a polished salesman, a single mother, and a recovering drug addict – were fired over the alleged theft. Four years later, the same three suspects stand to share a $4 million judgment against the company.
“On paper, I’m now a millionaire,” said the salesman, Paulino Bonds of Mays Landing, who grew up in Northeast Philadelphia. “But I know it’s not over.”
A federal jury delivered the multimillion-dollar award last month, concluding that the employer, Flagship Resort Development Corp., of Atlantic City, fired the workers because they refused to take lie-detector tests.
A 1988 law prohibits companies from asking employees to take a polygraph. But such cases rarely make it to trial, say lawyers who have researched the issue, in part because the law is so seldom violated.
“This may be one of the first of its kind to go to verdict,” said Karen Williams, the attorney for Flagship, which has filed motions seeking to have the verdict and $4 million award thrown out. “But the punishment has to fit the crime.”
Bonds’ attorney, Randolph C. Lafferty, agreed that the case was unusual, but said the award was just, given the “flagrant violation of the law.”
“I think that’s why the jury thought it was important to send a strong message,” Lafferty said.
Two jurors who heard the case said it was obvious Flagship fired Bonds, Gloria Gadson and Danielle Lyles for refusing to take a polygraph.
“What happened to those people wasn’t right,” said juror Vivian Komar, a nurse from Cape May. “They were violated. They were decent people.”
Did the three workers steal the money? Komar said she doubts it. “They had too much to lose,” she said.
Another juror, Megan Giordano, a graduate student who lives in Gibbstown, said she was still not sure.
“I still haven’t figured that out,” Giordano said, though she added it was “clear cut” the employer broke the law by requesting the polygraphs.
Mark Pfeffer, who represented Lyles, said there was no evidence anyone stole any money. “If I had thought she had stolen the money, I never would have represented her,” he said. “When you get terminated from your job for stealing money when you didn’t, it makes it real hard to get another job.”
The theft is alleged to have occurred 10 days before Christmas 1999 at the time-share’s call center in Brigantine, where Bonds, Lyles and Gadson worked.
Bonds, 39, was the successful salesman. He supervised telemarketers who pitched the time-shares for Flagship and earned $70,000 a year.
Lyles, 29, was the single mother with two small children, whose supervision of the company’s data-entry employees earned her about $30,000 a year.
Gadson, 45, was the recovering addict, who had recently moved to the Atlantic City area from North Jersey and had successfully completed a rehabilitation program. She was eager to restart her life and was earning $35,000 a year supervising telemarketers, Lafferty said.
The three did not work directly together, but bonded while smoking Newports outside during work breaks.
On the day of the alleged theft, a coworker, Charlotte Blake, who sat next to Lyles, left to pick up a check for about $4,100 from her lawyer. It was money owed from an unrelated auto accident.
Blake testified that she cashed the check at a check-cashing agency and visited her boyfriend before returning to her office. She said she carried the cash into the office in an envelope.
She said she told Lyles about the money, put it inside her desk drawer, then walked away to help plan an office Christmas party. When she came back, she lamented that the money was missing. The police were called. Desks, cars and trash cans were searched, but no money was found.
Almost immediately, Blake cast suspicion on Lyles. The police took statements at the Brigantine station from both women.
Flagship hired a private investigator. He took statements and wrote up a report, recommending that Blake, Gadson, Bonds and Lyles be asked to take lie-detector tests.
Flagship executives asked them to take the polygraphs. Blake agreed and passed, according to the investigator’s report. The three others refused and were fired.
Gadson and Lyles became upset. But Bonds said he was not worried. In telephone conference calls with his two colleagues, he told them to calm down. They had been wronged, he said. Their employer had violated a federal law. He had learned about this obscure law a few years back, he explained, during supervisor training while working at Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino. They needed to find good lawyers and sue, he told them.
The case took four years to reach trial before U.S. District Judge Joseph Irenas in Camden. The trial lasted 10 days.
During deliberations, jurors did not find Blake credible, jurors Komar and Giordano said.
“Come on, if that’s all the money you have in the world, are you going to broadcast it?” Komar said.
Komar said jurors were wary of Blake’s story because she had a previous criminal conviction related to dishonesty, one she did not list on her employment application. At the time, Blake still owed about $4,000 in restitution related to the criminal case, records show.
After a day of deliberation the jury awarded compensatory damages. Lyles got $88,285 in lost wages and $100,000 for emotional distress. Bonds won $263,040 in lost wages and $200,000 for emotional distress. Gadson received $145,320 for lost wages and $300,000 for emotional distress.
The next day, the jury awarded punitive damages – about $1 million each.
Bonds, who owns a small home in the Frankford section of Philadelphia, said that if the award were upheld, he and his wife planned to buy a home in the Mays Landing area.
Lyles also plans to buy her first home. She didn’t expect to win, she said, because she doesn’t share Bonds’ faith in the justice system. “The kind of justice I usually see is African Americans getting the short end,” she said.
Gadson was not in court for either jury award. She was in state prison, serving a four-year term for marijuana possession with intent to distribute. She has breast cancer, she testified at trial, and was using the marijuana to lessen the ill effects from chemotherapy. Lafferty said Gadson chose prison over other sentencing alternatives “because, sadly, the health-care benefits are better.”
Gadson, too, plans to use the money to buy a house.
“She’s just glad justice has been done,” Bonds said.
Public employees should have the same protections against the voodoo science of polygraphy that these employees enjoyed under the Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988. In many government agencies, employees may be fired with impunity for refusing to submit to a lie detector “test.” A Comprehensive Employee Polygraph Protection Act is needed.