The Connecticut mechanic who lost his job after joining the Marine Reserves may not have a slam dunk case in his legal bid to reclaim his job, experts said.
Derek Laaser, 19, who left for basic training at Parris Island on Sunday, says he was fired by Chevrolet of Milford after telling his boss he needed off for training and then for one weekend a month to fulfill his reserve duties. In a federal suit filed last week, his attorneys claim the dealership violated his rights under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Act, a federal law designed to ensure men and women “are not discriminated against in employment based on past, present or future military service."
But Laaser's attorneys could find the case tough to prove, and the burden - as in all employment discrimination cases - is on the plaintiff, said Ossai Miazad, co-chair of the American Bar Association’s Fair Labor Standards Legislation Subcommittee on the act. Laaser claims he told his superiors he was joining the Marine Corps Reserves back in December, when he learned he'd been accepted, which could be deemed reasonable notice, according to Miazad.
“The time in which he informed them appears to be short, but there’s no bright line rule as to how much time is needed,” said Miazad, an atttorney with the New York law firm Outten & Golden.
Crucial to Laaser's case is proving that his military service was the reason he was fired, said Miazad. A letter Laaser requested and got from his boss on March 9 stating that he had "decided to leave our company to pursue a career in the military" could be critical to drawing the connection between his service and his dismissal, she said. Laaser, who was nearing the end of a rigorous mechanic's training program and on schedule to receive a key GM certification, claims he sought the letter after his boss told him he had to work weekends. Laaser claims he was willing to work three weekends a month, but had to dedicate one to the Reserve duty.
"The letter he received from his employer will be a key piece of evidence," said Miazad. "But one of the issues may be determining whether he left voluntarily or was forced out.”
Laaser's attorney, David Slossberg, said he will prove that Laaser gave his employer plenty of notice.
"He first gave notice back in December, and then was terminated three-and-a-half months later," Slossberg said. "The amount of time he gave for notice is in no way an issue."
Milford Chevrolet Service Director Nick Saccomanno declined to comment, and officials at the dealership also refused to discuss the case or provide the name of the dealership's attorney.
Laaser was hired by the dealership last October as a part-time technician trainee under the General Motors Automotive Service Educational Program, which allows new mechanics to earn an associate's degree in automotive technology. In February, Laaser’s supervisor asked him if he could start working weekends, according to his attorney. The reservist reminded him of his military duty and that he would not be able to work on select weekends.
His boss allegedly claimed it was the first he'd heard of it and told Laaser he needed to “choose between a career at Chevrolet of Milford or leaving for military service,” according to the documents.
Miazad said similar cases are cropping up with increased frequency as more people enlist and employers grapple with staffing.
“We’re seeing it more now, but most employers often don’t understand what their responsibility is,” said Miazad. “It’s not something many of them have had to deal with before.”