Florida Law Firm That Fired Workers For Wearing Orange Cites Bullying

PHOTO: Janice Doble, 50, of Sunrise was fired from her job at Elizabeth Wellborn Law firm for wearing an orange shirt, March 16, 2012. Doble who was a supervisor of the scan-copy-mailroom wore orange as part of a group going to happy hour.Michael Laughlin, South Florida Sun Sentinel
Janice Doble, 50, of Sunrise, Fla., said she was fired from her job at the Elizabeth Wellborn Law firm for wearing an orange shirt. Doble said she wore orange as part of a group going to a happy hour.

The Florida law firm where workers said they were fired for wearing orange is defending itself, saying some workers were bullying a manager.

Elizabeth R. Wellborn law firm in Deerfield Beach, Fla., said that it welcomes "the opportunity to present all the facts to the National Labor Relations Board" after eight of the workers fired from the law firm March 16 for wearing orange filed a federal complaint last week against their former employer, contesting the firing.

Wellborn said that "any assertion that the firm disciplines people for what they wear, or simply for wearing orange shirts, is ludicrous and disingenuous" and "statements by the employees' attorney that her clients were protesting work conditions is a fabrication and contradicts earlier statements by employees that they had planned a group outing to a local bar and wanted to match their attire."

Wellborm said 11 employees "were discharged for their efforts to harass, bully and intimidate the new office manager into quitting," but not everyone wearing orange that day was let go.

Attorney Donna Ballman who represents the eight support staff, in response, told ABC News the law firm's statement "would be laughable if it weren't a such a malicious and unfounded attack on my clients."

Ballman said, "Different people were wearing orange for different reasons that day, but the fact is it doesn't matter."

Ballman said some workers may have been wearing orange to mimic the uniform color often used by the Florida Department of Corrections. Those workers may have been protesting new work rules imposed by a new manager in early March. She said, for example, that they could not speak to coworkers over the walls of their cubicles, even to discuss work-related matters.

"They couldn't go to the break room and get coffee while on the clock," Ballman said. "There were suddenly lots of new restrictions on them. Some of them were upset about those new rules."

Wellborn, however, said in a statement that "supervisors were among those talking about the office manager using obscene and vulgar language, as well as encouraging others to disregard her instructions," which she called "particularly upsetting."

"Our office manager felt threatened and subsequently left the state," Wellborn said. "Since then, a private security company has been hired to protect the firm's employees."

Ballman said Elizabeth Wellborn's husband gathered most, though not all, of the employees who were wearing orange that day and they were "told that management thought they were wearing orange shirts to protest working conditions, and they should pack their things and leave," Ballman said.

"We hope our case will help change the law for other Americans," Meloney McLeod, one of the workers who filed the complaint, said in a statement. "Nobody should be fired because of the color of their shirt. It's wrong."

The complaint filed with the labor board stated in part, "I believe I was discharged for engaging in and/or for being suspected of engaging in concerted activity for the purpose of mutual aid or protection with coworkers and for the purpose of causing a chilling effect on other coworkers who might wish to engage in concerted activity in the future. In addition, my former employer imposed restrictive covenants on me which I believe violate my rights under the [National Labor Relations] Act, particularly in Paragraph 7."

Section seven of the law states: "Employees shall have the right to self-organization, . . . to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection . . . ."

The law makes it unlawful for an employer "to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in section 7."

"We don't hire employees just to fire them. But we will take decisive action to protect the civility and fairness of our workplace," Wellborn said. "At our firm we pride ourselves on doing what's best for our clients, and that means taking care of employees. We enjoy an excellent reputation as a great place to work, pay highly competitive wages, and provide many fringe benefits. Relatives of employees have traditionally been hired to create a family friendly atmosphere. Those things are valued at this firm."

Ballman said there have been cases where firing employees because management didn't like their shirts were found to be unlawful, including when AT&T workers wore shirts that said "Inmate #" on the front and on the back said "Prisoner of AT$T", which was activity protected under the National Labor Relations Act.

In Florida, employment is presumed to be at will, which means that unless stated otherwise by something like an employment contract or a piece of legislation, an employee can be fired for any reason or no reason at all, said Kerri Stone, a law professor at Florida International University.

Janice Doble, 50, a fired copy room worker, also joined in filing the complaint. She said she was wearing orange because she was going to a happy hour with coworkers and was not protesting working conditions.

"Orange happens to be my favorite color. My patio is orange," Doble told Florida's Sun-Sentinel newspaper. "My lipstick was orange today."

Ballman is releasing a book this fall called, "Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired: Handle Your Workplace Crisis Before You Quit, Get Canned, Or Sue the Bastards" with Career Press.

"Everybody who can be fired for no reason is an 'orange American,'" she said. "Everybody that can be fired for wearing an orange shirt to work should be outraged by this."