The Brentwood office of Georgia-based law firm, Moore Ingram Johnson & Steele LLP, stands accused in court of wrongfully terminating one of its legal assistants in spite of her COVID-related disability.
Julia Russo, an MIJS legal assistant from summer 2018 to summer 2020, and representation filed the federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Middle Tennessee by way of the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act—the former applicable due to MIJS being a mid-size employer of over 50 people and the latter based on employing less than 500. Russo took a prolonged leave of absence during the pandemic exacerbated by her anxiety over exposure to the virus, which was confirmed by her physician to be driven by her congenital susceptibility to Guillain-Barre syndrome, making her one of the many people more likely to die if she contracted coronavirus.
When Russo requested to work remotely, Administrative Partner Bill Johnson allegedly wrote to other management, “let’s accommodate her by firing her,” and when subordinate management recommended consideration of rights related to what her physician qualified as a disability, Johnson insisted: “Think my suggestion is best,” according to the court filing. The firm subsequently terminated Russo’s employment, which Russo argues was directly based on that disability, which would constitute an FMLA violation. The firm also did not invoke any paid leave policy.
At the time of publication, MIJS had declined to comment on the case or on Russo’s termination.
When notifying Russo of next steps, Johnson e-mailed her: “Greg and Jody have made me aware of your FMLA coming to an end as well as your request to either extend your FMLA for 30 days, through August 16th. I do need to note that we are not required to hold your job after July 16th. If a position is available after this date and you are ready to return on site and work in the office, we will consider you for any openings we may have at that time. Working remotely causes undue hardship to the firm. A legal assistant’s position simply can’t be done 100% remotely without causing additional hardship to the firm and your co-workers.”
Russo’s representation argues that MIJS “management had a lax attitude toward preventing COVID-19 transmission,”—evinced by the firm’s lack of a mask mandate at peak infection rates for Greater Nashville and by shareholding partner Troy Hart’s firm-wide email in April 2020 mocking COVID-19 concern by referring to it as the “China Virus”—which made her more anxious. The office is known to be relatively small with an open-concept floor plan, which counsel for Russo argues does nothing to combat airborne contagions.
Founded in 1984, MIJS is a national practice with other offices in Knoxville; Lexington, Kentucky; Marietta, Georgia; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; and Florida offices in Jacksonville, Orlando and Santa Rosa Beach.