There is a lot to be thankful for in Los Angeles this Thanksgiving. As I’m sure we can all agree, near the top of the list is the Lakers’ recent acquisition of superstars Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, as well as team USA Coach Mike D’Antoni, all in time for the holidays. Of course, I’m guessing that the Buss family’s decision not to hire Coach Phil Jackson (who is dating Lakers executive and daughter-of-the-owner Jeannie Buss) is going to make things awfully awkward at the Buss family Thanksgiving dinner table.
Of course, that’s only going to the second most awkward turkey-related incident of the last month for a member of the Lakers family. The dubious first prize goes to Laker great Magic Johnson, whose passion for turkey and other tasty treats has found its way into a civil lawsuit against him.
Just before Halloween, a woman named Latina Thomas — who, until recently, was Magic’s personal flight attendant — filed a wrongful termination action against Magic and the aviation company that had co-employed her. Ms. Thomas alleges that she was fired for being seven minutes late to work after waiting an extra-long time at a deli counter trying to purchase “two types of specific turkey” for Magic’s sandwich. Ms. Thomas claims that the turkey incident was a pretext for her firing so that Magic could replace her with a younger woman.
So who’s the real turkey here? Magic Johnson or the flight attendant?
Before putting you to sleep faster than turkey-tryptophan with a bunch of boring law on age discrimination, labor code violations, and wrongful termination, let’s get straight to the salacious stuff.
According to Ms. Thomas, who earned $75,000 a year and a $25,000 bonus, a third of her time was spent catering to Magic’s requests. These requests included stocking his personal aircraft with newspapers, DVDs, and “highly specific in-flight food and beverage choices.” According to Ms. Thomas’ allegations, “Mr. Johnson was very particular that all snacks were fresh, and an example of this was that he directed Ms. Thomas to regularly squeeze his red vines to make sure they were soft and ready to eat.” Naturally, TMZ was all over this, turning this allegation into the headline “He Made Me Squeeze His Red Vines,” and commenting that Magic “wanted a ‘substantially younger woman’ to service him in the air.” [Note: Here at Law Law Land, we would never make such scandalous comments.]
With respect to her firing, Ms. Thomas alleges that she had been out of commission with a wrist injury and that during that time she had been temporarily replaced with the “substantially younger” flight attendant. When she returned to work, she alleges that Magic’s treatment of her “changed in a subtle manner.” He allegedly was “less cordial” and “more standoffish and dismissive of her.” And then the turkey incident occurred. Ms. Thomas’s complaint alleges that, “[i]t was important for Mr. Johnson to have two types of specific turkey in his sandwich, so Ms. Thomas knew she had to wait at the deli counter despite the long line.” Then she was late, and then she got fired.
Ms. Thomas also alleges that she was not paid overtime, provided meal and rest breaks, and that her employers failed to keep a record of her hours worked. (By the way, if you are an employer reading this going “oh s***, I don’t do any of things,” please call us before you are part of your very own legal turkey hunt. Actually, read these, then call us.)
So in the eyes of the law, who is the real turkey here?
With respect to Ms. Thomas’ age discrimination claims, both state and federal law prohibit age discrimination. While it’s okay to favor an older employee over a younger one, the reverse is not okay. To prove a claim for unlawful discrimination, an employee first has to establish that they (1) are a member of a protected class (being “youth-challenged” counts); (2) were qualified to do the job; (3) the employer took a negative employment action (e.g., fired them); and (4) the employee was replaced by someone outside of the protected class. After that happens, the employer gets a chance to show that it had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its action.
This is where juicy emails and other documents can come into play. Imagine if an employer sends a text message or email to a colleague saying, “Let’s fire so-and-so. He’s such an old fart.” Or in Magic’s case, imagine if he sent message to the aviation company telling them to find someone “hotter” to squeeze his Red Vines (which could be reasonably interpreted as meaning a younger person to squeeze those candy sticks). Those would be what lawyers refer to as “bad facts.”
In this case, we don’t know any of the facts supporting either Ms. Thomas or Magic’s position, so it’s far from a slam dunk in either direction (at least on the issue of discrimination). Since Magic Johnson is my boyhood idol, I’m biased in his direction, but as any litigator will warn you, you never know what will happen if you wind up with a real turkey for a judge or jury.
In any event, Happy Thanksgiving from everyone at Law Law Land. We offer you our warmest wishes and sincerest hopes that none of your turkey-related mishaps this weekend result in litigation. (But if they do, you can call us to ask about it.)