Sunday, September 21, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Judge: Lawsuit against UPS that began with stink bomb pranks actually stinks itself

A federal judge last week ruled four former United Parcel Service employees couldn't move forward with a wrongful termination lawsuit stemming from a series of stink bombs set off at the UPS depot near the Philadelphia International Airport.

"The Philadelphia airport has doubtless been the site of many indignities," U.S. District Judge Felipe Restrepo wrote Thursday in a memorandum accompanying his order that dismissed the suit against UPS. "Travelers who battled security lines and boarding mobs in 2006 and 2007, though, likely remained oblivious to a different plague of that time: a rash of 'stink bombs' released at the UPS airport facility."

Stink bombs were occasionally discharged in empty vans at the Hog Island Road facility "as a 'rite of passage' to new employees" slated to drive the targeted trucks, according to the lawsuit's complaint.
 
The events that led to the suit started in the summer of 2006, when one such putrid projectile was propelled into a van whose crew was supervised by plaintiff William Ward. According to the complaint, one of Ward's superiors - who was not present when the bomb was discharged - told Ward a crew member named Erik Diem was a possible culprit "because it was believed that he played with stink bombs on the ramp." Ward told Diem that, while he didn't know whether Diem was responsible, "the act was not funny and Ward did not want it to happen again," the complaint states.

Another stink bomb was in January 2007 dropped in an empty van. This time, Diem admitted to the offense and was fired. But the 9-year employee contested his termination and sought reinstatement, leading to a lengthy grievance process.

Prior to one of Diem's arbitration hearings, Ward's supervisors allegedly asked him to sign a notarized affidavit stating Diem was responsible for the 2006 stink bomb and had been warned he would be fired if it happened again. Ward refused, contending he didn't know whether Diem was to blame. 

Three of Ward's then-colleagues - James McQuade, Jovanny Padin and Vasken Sarkahian, also plaintiffs in the suit - said they wrote statements backing up Ward's version of events and submitted letters supporting Diem's rehiring.

According to the lawsuit, UPS managers "responded to these events with hostility," warning the plaintiffs to retract their statements in support of Diem. When the men refused, UPS higher-ups allegedly told them "that their stocks had dropped" and "that they did not see their promotions happening." UPS superiors then "subjected the plaintiffs to special scrutiny and undertook a campaign of harassment" against them, the suit claims.

Ward was fired for purportedly failing to promptly load an airplane on June 29, 2007, according to the court papers. But Ward claimed the plane took off on time and that he was actually let go for refusing to sign the affidavit accusing Diem of the odorous offense. Sarkahian left the company in 2007 after a car accident. 

The other men claimed after they refused to provide the desired affidavits, their assignments were needlessly shifted around, their work was subject to high levels of scrutiny and they were continually subjected to undeserved verbal reprimands. They said they were undergoing training to become full-time supervisors before the stink bomb debacle but that after the putrid proceedings, they were continually passed over for promotions. All four men filed suit against UPS in July 2011. 

Restrepo ruled the clock had expired on the wrongful termination allegations brought forth by Ward and Sarkahian, as both men left the company in 2007 but didn't file suit until 2011. Pennsylvania law puts a 2-year statute of limitations on most civil claims of wrongdoing.

Restrepo further pointed out neither McQuade nor Padin actually alleged they were terminated, at all. Court documents state McQuade left UPS after suffering a stroke. "The complaint does not specify whether Padin ever ceased to work for UPS or still does," Restrepo wrote in the memorandum. 

Restrepo noted the plaintiffs had asked the court to recognize UPS' failure to promote them as a violation of federal Title VII anti-bias law but failed to present any Pennsylvania case precedents supporting their claim. "This court is not at liberty to invent one," Restrepo said. "Because neither McQuade nor Padin claims to have been terminated from his employment, neither has stated a claim for wrongful discharge, and UPS is entitled to judgment as a matter of law."

Alex Wigglesworth For Philly.com
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