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VISALIA, Calif. – The first round in a dispute between a credit union and a breast cancer surviving employee has ended badly for the credit union. The California Superior Court jury found the $193 million Tucoemas FCU guilty of discrimination when it demoted an employee with breast cancer. It also found the credit union and the credit union’s CEO, Linda Reese, had retaliated against the employee, Kimberly McGee, because she had tried to assert her rights under California law. According to its verdict in the case, the jury awarded McGee almost two million dollars in compensatory damages from the credit union for its actions and $1.2 million in punitive damages along with $7,000 from Reese personally for her role in those actions. In a prepared statement Reese said she, the credit union, the credit union’s personnel attorney as well as CUNA Mutual and its attorney had been shocked by the jury decision in the case. “We believe that the verdict is not justified by the law or the evidence presented in this case,” Reese said, adding that both she and the credit union “absolutely deny” discriminating against McGee. Reese declined to go into details about the case, citing both the ongoing legal questions and the fact that it was a personnel matter, but she added that the credit union would also try to get a new trial. “We cannot understand how the jury in possession of all the facts could have reached the conclusion it did,” Reese said. “We just don’t understand it.” CUNA Mutual Group, as the bondholder for the credit union, would be responsible for roughly half of the judgments against the CU. CUNA Mutual didn’t have any statistics immediately available for how many credit union disputes with employees go to court or how many of those cases credit unions lose. According to Peter Bradley, McGee’s attorney, the dispute arose in mid-2003 when McGee, a 17-year employee who had risen from being branch manager to being a vice president of lending was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer. The cycle of chemotherapy and radiation treatments required that McGee be away from the office for two weeks longer than the four months of leave Tucoemas allowed. Even though McGee offered to work from home for the last two weeks that her doctors advised she take, the credit union demoted her to her previous position as branch manager, Bradley said. In its verdict the jury determined that the credit union had not engaged in a “timely, good faith interactive process” with McGee after she had requested a “reasonable” accommodation. That accommodation, Bradley said, had been an offer from McGee to work from home for the two weeks the doctors said she needed. Bradley suggested that the retaliation part of the decision had arisen from the jury’s belief that the credit union had manufactured reasons to demote McGee after she had tried to assert her rights under California law. It was just a little hard to believe that an employee who had received 17 years of good performance reviews and who had been promoted five years before could suddenly need to be demoted after she needed the extra time off, Bradley explained. Under California law, Bradley said that the CU would have to post a bond calculated on the basis of the judgments and court costs from the case, a figure which would run into millions of dollars. Bradley also indirectly challenged the credit union’s assertion that the jury had somehow misunderstood the law or misinterpreted the evidence. He pointed out that the part of California where the case was tried is not considered a particularly politically liberal area or one where a jury would necessarily support a worker’s claim of discrimination. “This is not a part of the country where juries could be thought of as looking for ways to stick it to employers,” Bradley said, “but this jury still found in favor of this defendant.” -

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