NAPLES, Fla. - Jane Trejo-Beverly had just returned home from her office holiday party when she phoned the Collier Courthouse and learned she had to report for jury duty the next morning.
The 49-year-old North Naples woman immediately texted her supervisor at Island Title 5 Star Agency, then emailed a note with information to several supervisors, saying she'd call from the courthouse if she was selected. The next morning, she texted again and her supervisor said she was aware.
While she was doing her civic duty, however, her phone rang while she was in the jury room. She listened to the voicemail during a break — she'd been fired.
"I hung up and burst into tears," Trejo-Beverly said of losing her job 11 days before Christmas.
On Friday, she sued Island Title 5 Star Agency, a real estate company with offices in Naples and Marco Island, alleging it violated the law by firing her. Company officials deny the allegations, citing performance issues during Trejo-Beverly's probationary period.
It's against Florida law to threaten an employee with termination or to fire someone for reporting to jury duty. The law allows employees to sue to seek compensatory and punitive damages, which are meant to punish, set an example and deter wrongdoing.
"This is the heart of the jury system," said her attorney, Bernard Mazaheri. "If jurors are afraid to serve on juries because they'll lose their jobs, we're not going to have trials."
"What this employer did was unspeakable — and hiding behind a probationary period is a pretext," he added. "There was no indication she'd be fired. She even went to the holiday party the night before."
The lawsuit, filed in Collier Circuit Court, is supported by evidence that includes emails, texts, and voicemail messages she received, sent and saved.
Her supervisor, Dawn Norgren, faces a misdemeanor contempt charge and was summoned to court by County Judge Mike Provost hours after the Dec. 14 termination. Norgren pleaded not guilty and returns to court Jan. 20.Island Title owner Robert Leeber called the allegations "incorrect," noting that in 30 years of business, 15 employees served jury duty and were paid.
"We would never do that," Leeber said of terminating an employee for serving on a jury. "It's not fair for an employee because it's their obligation. There's more to this than meets the eye here. It will all come out because of the lawsuit."
He contended Trejo-Beverly was demoted during training and fired during a probationary period. However, he maintained she didn't tell anyone about jury duty.
"When I get a call for jury duty, I don't care if I'm No. 1 or No. 500, I don't keep it a secret," he said. "I let my employer know."
Trejo-Beverly said she never thought she'd be called because No. 426 was so high and she wrote on her jury questionnaire that family members are in law enforcement, which often gets jurors excused.
She'd been hired Nov. 14 after leaving the real estate industry 10 years earlier to start a wedding event planning business and a boutique. She was being trained as a bilingual closer for property sales in Naples, she said, but it was too busy there, so she was sent to Marco Island.
On Dec. 13, she went to the office holiday party, where she said employees praised her work. When she returned home, she called the jury hotline, which said jurors 400 to 500 had to report the next morning.
"I immediately texted my office manager and said I have to report to jury duty at 8:30, then said I'd follow up with an email," she said.
She scanned in her jury number, the jury hotline number, and emailed them with a note to her supervisor, office manager and others, telling them she'd call to say if she was selected. Early the next morning, she said, she texted her supervisor, who replied that she was aware she'd been summoned.
But in the jury room, her phone rang and she couldn't answer. During a break, she played the voicemail, which asked her to call to talk.
"Things just are not working so I want to terminate our relationship," the voicemail by Norgren says. "I'm sorry you had to be out of the office this morning and you didn't tell us."
She burst into tears, she said, then called to ask why. Norgren accused her of knowing she'd be on jury duty because her number was 86, she said. She corrected her, but Norgren called her communication "inappropriate."
A clerk who saw her crying notified Clerk of Courts Dwight Brock, who spoke with her. Brock gave a bailiff a note to inform the judge about the firing. Provost summoned her to the bench after a break, shortly before she was selected for the two-day misdemeanor battery trial.
"I told him she said I didn't give her enough notice for jury duty," Trejo-Beverly said. "Then
I started crying."
"I loved that job," she said. "If there is a message, I guess it's that employers and employees should be aware of the law."
It's unusual for employees to be fired for serving on a jury, partly due to negative publicity — and because most states prohibit it.
"I think it is rare that employers take such blatantly illegal action against employees," said Paula Hannaford-Agor, director of the National Center for State Courts' Center for Jury Studies.
Most defendants argue employees were fired for other reasons, while plaintiffs' attorneys brand that a pretext.
In a 2009 Washington, D.C., case, a guidance counselor was unable to prove she'd been fired after 20 years because she'd served on a four-month capital murder trial. A federal judge agreed everyone should know jobs are protected and noted, "Sitting as a juror on a lengthy, difficult, capital case is one of the most challenging, but absolutely critical, civic duties of all citizens."
Although she called the principal a "very unconvincing witness," she ruled the Local School Restructuring Team branded the job an "excess," so the counselor couldn't prove her case.
Over the years, there have been several Florida lawsuits, most filed by jurors on lengthy trials. State law doesn't limit damages if a jury can find an employer acted with specific intent to harm an employee — and juries often are sympathetic.
In 1987, a Broward jury awarded a Fort Lauderdale woman $2.8 million after she alleged she was fired from Pier 66 Hotel and Marina when she served as a juror in a murder trial. But the Fourth District Court of Appeal overturned it two years later, citing the tearful woman's "histrionics," inflammatory statements by her lawyers and witnesses — calling them prejudicial to the defendants. The case was settled for an undisclosed amount.
In 1988, in Juror 157 vs. Corporate Defendant, a woman's lawsuit alleged her employer fired her after she served on a 7½ month Colombian drug kingpin's trial. It was settled two years later for an undisclosed amount.
Prosecutions are rare. In 2007, a Pasco County prosecutor filed contempt charges against a print shop owner when an employee was fired after reporting for jury duty. The employer denied it, calling him a problem employee, but the judge found records didn't back that and found the employer guilty.
He fined him $500, half the maximum.