Interview with Richard Celler of the Employment Law Firm Celler Legal, P.A. on Standing Up To Illegal Practices In Today’s Workplace
It’s said working reveals character, labor done well provides dignity, and employment offers the financial lifeblood needed to support American families. Getting fired is a terrible blow for most families, only made worse if the termination was illegal. A fair and just workplace free from discrimination, harassment, overtime wage theft and other illegal practices is something every American has a right to expect. Such employer practices are not only abhorrent, but illegal, in violation of nationwide labor laws meant to protect the employed.
Unfortunately, even with the protections afforded by these laws, whether due to ignorance of the rules or willful disregard, employers still violate the rights of their workforce all too often. When they cross the line, the employment lawyers are the last line of defense.
We caught up with Richard B. Celler, lead attorney with the law firm Celler Legal, P.A. — a fierce advocate in the defense of workers rights and champion for those illegally fired, harassed or discriminated against in the workplace, — about being an innovator in the field of labor law and some of the issues employees face in today’s workplace.
I was fired from my job, how can an attorney help me?
Oftentimes, employees are unaware of their rights in the workplace. When they get fired, it is often a very upsetting time for them, and it feels like their world is upside down and they don’t know what to do or where to turn. Employment law is a specialized area, where we are trained to examine an employee’s individual situation at no cost, to see whether there are protections the employees are afforded, and to determine what if anything we can do for a client to either secure a severance payment or pursue their rights in litigation.
Walking into a dispute with a former employer, without a lawyer, is like walking into a gun fight without bullets.
What commonly causes employers to violate the law in your experience, can’t they simply make my firing look legitimate?
The days of loyalty in the workplace are long gone. The truth is that employers don’t prefer female, minority, older, disabled, pregnant, religious, or whistleblower type employees in the workplace. These employees often cost more and are more high maintenance than the young white male who is perfectly healthy. Employers generally use what I call “the Pinto mentality,” where they decide that it is just cheaper to violate the law and if they get caught, pay the employee, than simply do things the right way. Of course, employers are savvy and will try to create a paper trail designed to cover up the true reason (illegal) for termination and make it look legitimate.
A good employment lawyer can spot the cover up and dig for the true reason of termination which is often, illegal and discriminatory.
The company I work for has been violating OSHA safety standards and it’s going to get someone seriously hurt, I don’t want to lose my job if I come forward, what protections do I have?
Most states have what are referred to as whistleblower laws that protect employees for coming forward and reporting/objecting to illegal practices in the workplace. If the employee is then fired, there is a variety of damages available to compensate the employee for coming forward and doing the right thing. Being a whistleblower serves the common good of society. If you are working somewhere that is doing things illegally and it can either hurt the employees working there or someone else, the laws encourage you, and will then protect you, for coming forward.
One real important point to follow – if you are going to object to an illegal practice, do it in writing so there is a paper trail.
Otherwise, cheating employers will just deny that you ever complained. If they are willing to do illegal things in the workplace, don’t you think they are willing to lie to cover it up? Document, document, document.
I took time off under FMLA, when I returned I was told I no longer have a job, I thought I was protected, is there anything I can do?
This is illegal. The FMLA allows an employee up to 12 weeks of unpaid and protected leave for a serious medical condition for him/herself, or for a close family member- parent, spouse, child, etc. To qualify for FMLA, you must work full time for a company for at least 12 months before the leave (totaling at least 1,250 hours worked), and work at a facility that has at least 50 or more employees within a 75 mile radius of where he/she works.
If you are fired illegally under the FMLA, or prevented from taking FMLA leave when you qualify, you are entitled to your lost wages, plus double or liquidated damages, and payment of your attorneys’ fees and costs. This law is very technical and tricky, so a good employment lawyer will be able to spot a violation, whereas a non-lawyer may not even know their rights were violated.
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Having been fired illegally, what is that potentially worth to me?
It really depends on the case. If we go to trial, we ask for damages from the date of firing until the date of trial, which can be two years plus. For purposes of negotiating settlements, which commonly occur in these types of cases, a typical severance can range from 3 months to a year of pay plus payment of your attorneys’ fees and costs.
I reside and work in an “at will” State, does that matter?
Can you share a little about how this works and how it may impact my case? Sure. So the concept of at will, which applies in most states, means that an employer has the right to fire an employee for a good or bad reason, or even an untruthful reason, so long as the underlying reason is not illegal. What makes the decision illegal is if it based on a protected category such as, among others, age, race, religion, pregnancy, disability, familial status, or because the employee objected to illegal activity (being a whistleblower).
I always tell my clients that there is a difference between unfair and illegal. A termination may be unfair, but that doesn’t mean it’s illegal. If you are fired and it is not because of a protected category, even if the employer is wrong (accused you of theft when you didn’t steal), your rights are very limited, and there most likely is no case.
There are a lot of lawyers out there… What separates the good from the great attorneys?
Lawyers who walk the walk and not just talk the talk. Here is the truth, there is a lot of information out there and fancy websites touting this lawyer over that lawyer. The best predictor of the future is the past. Look at your lawyer’s past results, ask them how many cases they have tried and won, ask about their biggest settlements. If you take a look at my website at www.floridaovertimelawyer.com, I have a whole section committed to educating potential clients on what they should look for in choosing an employment lawyer. Make sure he/she specializes in employment law. You wouldn’t go to a foot doctor to have open heart surgery, would you?
I was let go from my job, after failing a drug test, can you help me?
Unfortunately, very unlikely. We talked about being at will. If you fail a drug test, you can be fired, plain and simple. The only way you might be protected, is if you take medication as part of disability, explain this to your employer, and still get fired for taking that drug. In that instance, you may have a disability claim under the ADA or state law.
What can coming forward with my claim do for me, how can an attorney help?
A client coming forward with their claim has many potential benefits beyond the potential financial recovery. It could offer an opportunity for closure in some instances. It could also offer vindication that the injuries that they suffered were not their fault.
I’m being sexually harassed at work, what should I do?
In this day of electronic age, if you take anything away from this interview, this is the most important point. You have to document your complaint in writing to human resources or your manager, and ask that the sexual harassment be investigated and stopped. You must give your employer an opportunity to correct the problem under the law. If the employer puts a stop to the harassment and you don’t get retaliated against, the employer has done what it is obligated to do under the law. But, if no investigation is conducted, and the harassment continues or you are retaliated against, contact a lawyer. You may be entitled to damages and relief.
How do you deal with the very real human impact unfair job loss, harassment or workplace discrimination can cause your clients and their families?
It’s tough. The truth is, nobody calls me to represent them when they are happy with their job. When someone loses their job, it feels almost like the death of a loved one. Many people spend more time at work than anywhere else. Being an employment lawyer means not only knowing the law, but showing compassion for clients at their toughest moments. Half of what I do is helping the client plan for the future, guide them on finding new work, and reassuring them that today is dark, but the sun rises tomorrow and things will get better. It sounds hokey, but it’s the truth. Losing your job turns your life upside down. It makes me feel great to help people in their time of need.
Can you share how a settlement you won for a client positively impacted their lives after it was all over?
That sounds like you are asking me to brag. Many of our clients give us reviews for what we have done for them. This is a recent review posted a few weeks ago from one of my clients. Thankfully, this is the type of work we do and it is so rewarding: “I contacted Richard Celler in 2014. I was forced to take maternity leave and fired after having my baby. He truly is amazing and will do whatever it takes to get you a settlement. He fights for what is right. I lost my house and my car lived in hotels for months. He helped me get my life back and I will forever be grateful for him and his team.”
My employer hasn’t been paying me for overtime work, won’t suing for fair and rightful compensation impact my job?
Yes and no. The truth is, your employer is stealing from you. Why is that ok? These are your wages. You have worked hard for them. The laws prohibit an employer from retaliating against you for insisting that you be paid your full and proper wages. Also, remember this – you can be fired any time as an at will employee. But once you complain about not being paid properly, you become protected under the law as a whistleblower. Raising the issue actually gives you more protection than you would otherwise have. Does it make it uncomfortable? Sometimes. But don’t be a victim. You didn’t do anything wrong. You have rights. Exercise them.
My company fired me to hire someone younger, I feel it was a case of age discrimination, but how can I prove it?
Good question. It’s rare to have an employer fire you and say “you are fired because of your age.” We use what is called circumstantial evidence to prove our cases. The biggest “key” for us is looking as to whether you were treated differently than younger employees, and whether after being fired, you were replaced by a younger employee. These signs are normally good proof of age discrimination. Also, if the employer seems to be purging the workplace of older employees in addition to you and replacing them with young guns, that is also a factor we consider. Every case is different. That is why if you feel there may be something to look at for discrimination, we offer a free consultation. Other firms charge $500 for this which is ridiculous. If there is something illegal going on, we can find out pretty quickly.
When do I not need an attorney?
Tough question to answer. Every case is different and every client is different. High ranking executives that are negotiating severance packages may not need an attorney because they have a lot of experience with the process. Other blue collar type employees (as they call them) might not know what to look for or whether they have been treated illegally. Rule of thumb – when in doubt, err on the side of caution and consult with a lawyer. What’s the downside to doing that?
What has been your proudest moment / accomplishment as an attorney to date?
That’s an easy one. My client’s name is Patricia Henry. She was fired for having HIV in an incredibly rude and disrespectful manner. She lost everything as a result of being fired and didn’t have the money to pay for her meds or her son. We went to trial and hit for $300,000.00 thanks to the jury. Justice was served on that day. I actually cried with her when we won (don’t make fun of me). If you look at our website, you will see other great results in class action cases where we settled cases for millions of dollars for groups of employees.
What will it cost me to pursue my claim?
It costs you nothing. We work on a contingency basis which means we only get paid if you get paid. There are no out of pocket costs to you and we front the costs of the case. When we settle/win, those costs come out of the recovery. Some firms charge clients up front for these costs. I think it is unfair. You have just lost your job and I’m going to ask you to pay $3,000-$4,000 you don’t have? That’s not fair.
I need money now, how long will it take?
Patience is important. Litigation moves slowly. Some cases settle in 1 month. Some take 2 years. It really all depends on the employer and whether they are prone to want to settle and resolve the case or dig in and fight. I’m not scared to go to court. Employers are bullies. They don’t like to taste their own blood in a courtroom. Sometimes, you have to take the fight to them and let them know that employee lives matter more than profit and bottom line for the company.
What sets you apart from the countless other employment attorneys and firms?
Here is the truth. I deeply care about my clients. Their problems and lives become my problems and my life. My clients get my cell phone number. They can call and text me when they want. Employment law is the only type of law I’ve ever done. I’m not a car crash lawyer, or an estate lawyer, or a contract lawyer. I’m an employment law trial lawyer. This is what I do. This is my specialty, and truth be told, I’m really good at what I do. My client reviews and results speak for themselves. There are so many lawyers out there and it is so hard to weed through who is the real deal and who is a fraud. I fear no company or employer. If you do the wrong thing with my clients and your employees, I’m coming for you, plain and simple.
Why do your clients love you?
I’m real. I’m not a stuffy lawyer who is going to sit and try to impress you with my awards and diplomas around the office (although we do have them hung around the office) and use fancy words. I’m going to give you real life advice and guidance whether it’s good or bad, and I’m going to pick you up when you are down. If you don’t have a valid claim, I’m not going to mince words. I’m going to tell you straight up that there is no case. If you do have a case, I’ve got your back.
What my clients get from me is my best, each and every time I go to war for them. My clients know that when we face off with the other lawyer and their client, I’m giving everything I have. As a contingency lawyer, I don’t make a dime unless we win. Therefore, the more money I can make for you, the better it is for me as well. We have the same interests.
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