Business & Real Estate

Jury sides with man who said Raley’s fired him over family leave. Raley’s is fighting back

Eric Hazard, left, stands with his son, Andrew Hazard, in October 2018. Eric Hazard, a former Raley’s pharmacy manager, was awarded $1.475 million by a Sacramento Superior Court jury last week. Hazard claimed he was fired by Raley’s in 2017 as retaliation for taking family leave to care for his permanently disabled son. Raley’s disputes the claim and has hinted it plans to appeal the verdict.
Eric Hazard, left, stands with his son, Andrew Hazard, in October 2018. Eric Hazard, a former Raley’s pharmacy manager, was awarded $1.475 million by a Sacramento Superior Court jury last week. Hazard claimed he was fired by Raley’s in 2017 as retaliation for taking family leave to care for his permanently disabled son. Raley’s disputes the claim and has hinted it plans to appeal the verdict. Edith Owen-Hazard

A former Raley’s pharmacy manager awarded nearly $1.5 million by a Sacramento jury in a retaliation case over family leave has a message for caregivers.

”It’s OK to speak up,” Eric Hazard said this week. “A lot of people have expressed the sentiment that people are being held accountable.”

Jurors last week awarded Hazard $1.475 million in damages for emotional distress and lost wages after a seven-day trial in Sacramento Superior Court.

The judgment, for now, has ended a years-long fight with the grocery chain over the time Hazard took from his job under the federal Family Medical Leave Act that Hazard claimed ultimately cost him his job in 2017 and threw his son Andrew Hazard’s continued care in doubt.

Andrew Hazard, 32, has hydrocephalus, a buildup of water on the brain, and scoliosis that has left him permanently paralyzed and led to dozens of surgeries – 41 by Andrew’s count, 10 alone during the last three years his father worked at Raley’s South Lake Tahoe location, he said.

“This has been a tremendous burden and challenge for the family,” said Hazard’s counsel, Roseville attorney Mark P. Velez, of the legal fight that led to last week’s verdict. “By bringing this to light, this can prevent other families from going through the same thing.”

Eric Hazard worked 17 years for Raley’s before he was dismissed in March 2017 after supervisors determined he had filled prescriptions for his son that February during the pharmacy’s off hours while his son was hospitalized..

Raley’s officials sacked Hazard for violating pharmacy policy, according to the lawsuit.

Hazard sued to fight his firing, alleging the February 2017 incidents served as a tidy excuse to fire him as payback for seeking federal family leave protections to care for his son.

But Raley’s officials in a statement Wednesday pushed back, defending the treatment of Hazard and his eventual firing in March 2017, saying they disagree with the outcome and are “evaulating our options” including challenging the jurors’ verdict and million-dollar judgment.

”Raley’s has always been committed to providing its employees with a good work environment while offering a healthy life balance; Mr. Hazard was no exception,” said Chelsea Minor, a company spokeswoman. “Raley’s acted properly in response to substantiated violations of its pharmacy policies and terminated Mr. Hazard out of concern for compliance and public safety.”

Hazard’s attorney challenged Raley’s rationale at trial, arguing that Raley’s pharmacy supervisors for years had an unwritten policy that allowed its pharmacists to open a closed pharmacy and fill family members’ prescriptions in emergencies as long they told supervisors and no money changed hands.

Hazard claimed his bosses had long bristled at his requests to take time off, flatly rejecting requests to take days off to drive his son to the hospital and doctors’ visits and to visit him while he was hospitalized. The denials, Hazard argued, came despite guarantees to workers under the federal Family Medical Leave Act and its state counterpart, the California Family Leave Act.

Under the acts, employees with a year or more at a job can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave within a 12-month period to care for an immediate family member with a serious health condition.

Both Hazard and Raley’s officials say Hazard worked with his supervisors to receive time off and arranged with higher-ups to leave shifts early for his son’s frequent hospitalizations.

“During the time that Mr. Hazard worked for Raley’s, the company accommodated his requests for time off, even to the point of closing the pharmacy at his store on two occasions,” company spokeswoman Minor said in the Wednesday statement.

But tensions between Hazard and his Raley’s supervisor over the time dedicated to his son’s care had simmered for some time, Hazard alleged in court papers and in a Monday interview with son Andrew, wife Edith and attorney Velez at Sacramento County Courthouse. Willy, a Scottish terrier who is Andrew’s support animal and constant companion, lay at their feet.

For years, Andrew and parents Eric and Nancy had fought through the challenges, the surgeries and the health setbacks, with Andrew earning a journalism degree from California State University, Sacramento, and attending graduate school at Northwestern University, near Chicago.

“Throughout Andrew’s life, he had health challenges, but it seemed like it became increasingly difficult to make sure his needs were met,” Eric Hazard said.

Raley’s supervisors were “a little hostile” to his requests, Hazard said. That hostility grew after Hazard obtained intermittent leave under the Family Medical Leave Act in 2015.

”I’d had 41 surgeries, so it was not anything new” to Raley’s, Andrew Hazard said. “Something changed.”

Hazard’s lawsuit alleges David Fluitt, a Raley’s pharmacy operations director, often denied Hazard’s requests for time off and suggested that Hazard used his son’s disability an an excuse to take days off of work.

In one instance, the lawsuit alleges, Fluitt said Hazard “should not hide behind your son’s medical condition to not do your job.”

Fluitt would often deny Hazard time off to take his son to the hospital or visit him there, despite guarantees under the Family Medical Leave Act and after admonishments from Raley’s human resources officials that Hazard was entitled to the time, the lawsuit alleged.

At trial, Hazard attorney Velez pointed to a series of emails dated Jan. 9 and 10, 2017, between Fluitt and a pharmacy supervisor that appeared to indicate the pair’s increasing frustration with Hazard’s use of family leave time and their intended search for a replacement.

”It seems like he is taking FMLA every week now,” Rajdeep Bhanver, a Raley’s pharmacy supervisor based out of Reno, wrote to Fluitt in a Jan. 9, 2017, email.

“Yes. My thoughts, too. We cant keep doing that,” Fluitt wrote in response.

The next day, Jan. 10, 2017, Bhanver emailed Fluitt again saying after a conversation with Hazard and a second person, “it is very clear they are not part of the solution to make this pharmacy a successful business. After placing (redacted) in the pharmacy, hopefully I can press for improvements.”

Andrew’s health was at a particular low point in the months leading to his father’s dismissal from Raley’s in 2017, about the time of the January 2017 email exchange.

Andrew related one such incident just before Eric Hazard’s firing from Raley’s.

A malfunctioning shunt sent him into a downward slide of pneumonia and a 45-day stay at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, which included a prolonged stretch on a ventilator in the hospital’s neurological intensive care unit.

”I was pretty sick,” Andrew said Monday. He elaborated in an email the following day on his condition and his family’s straits when his father was handed walking papers.

”I was on oxygen when I returned home. We lost our health insurance the day after Raley’s fired my dad,” Andrew wrote.

Andrew had Medi-Cal, he said, but postoperative appointments were delayed and he had to seek a new physician because of the change in insurance.

”Raley’s did this to us when my family was the most vulnerable it’s ever been, which is saying something since I’ve been through a lot,” he wrote.

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