Originally published in In Business Las Vegas.
In Business Q and A
Richard Segerblom, employment lawyer
Interviewed by Alana Roberts
Richard Segerblom is one of a small group of lawyers in the Las Vegas Valley who represents workers in litigation against their employers. He has represented many employees against area gaming firms, the Clark County School District and other valley employers.
Segerblom said he has taken the ideals that drive him in his legal practice and has applied them to his work in the political arena. He ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Clark County School Board in November and worked as chairman of the state Democratic Party from 1990 to 1994. He said he is considering a run for the Nevada Assembly if Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani runs for a seat on the Clark County Commission.
Segerblom said that in his nearly 25 years of practicing law in Southern Nevada, employers have improved their practices and are treating workers more fairly. He said they have become savvier about preventing the violation of their employees’ legal rights. He also suggested that employers consider settling legal disputes with their workers instead of taking them to court.
Although things have improved for workers, age discrimination is an area that is heating up in the employment law arena, Segerblom said. He also said blacklisting of workers who have sued past employers still occurs despite state legislation preventing the practice.
He said blacklisting is likely to continue in light of the mergers of several large gaming companies in Nevada, despite claims from gaming industry executives that their companies don’t blacklist workers.
Question: Why did you become a lawyer?
Answer: Well, actually my father was a judge in Boulder City. He wasn’t a lawyer, but I think the fact that he was a judge kind of encouraged me.
The reason I became a lawyer was I was painting a house. I was a house painter after I graduated from college (with a major) in philosophy and I got friendly with the wife and she said, “You know, you should apply to law school because my husband’s a prominent lawyer.” And so that’s what I did and that’s how I got into it.
Have you always practiced employment law?
Pretty much. When I first started I was getting things that no one else wanted, and that’s when employment law kind of took off. So people came to me and I would take the cases because no one else would take them.
There aren’t that many lawyers practicing employment law?
At the time there was nobody else. Now there’re quite a few. But it’s still a very difficult area of the law. Because your client doesn’t have any money and doesn’t have a job and employers hire very expensive lawyers to fight you.
Your pay is based on whether you win the case?
Yes, and that’s what I tell myself. If you have a good case, then the lawyer should be willing to take on a percentage. If they want to charge you money then that tells you that you’ll have a tough time. I also tell people, this is not about making money. These are not like auto accident cases. The number one thing you have to have is to want revenge.
You need to want to get in there, make them be held accountable and explain why they did what they did. At the end of the day, by just suing you’ve won. So you can’t look at this like a normal case.
How do you get business?
Basically word-of-mouth. Most lawyers, if someone comes to them, don’t specialize in this area and I’m one of the names people know about, so they’ll send them. My phone rings off the hook.
Everybody that’s fired is always wrongfully fired. Very few have a legitimate case. So I have to screen out the wheat from the chaff.
How many cases do you handle in a typical year?
At different degrees, 100. They aren’t all lawsuits, obviously, but people will contact me and I’ll do their unemployment hearing, or arbitration, or (be) their representative at the (Nevada Equal Rights Commission). You couldn’t do that many lawsuits.
Do you recommend to your clients to sue?
I really discourage them. Before I will take a case, I will sit down and explain to them, it’s very difficult; they should not do this for the money. But they need to, No. 1, want revenge in some sense or another because they’re going to go through hell.
No. 2, they need to know that by just filing the lawsuit it’s a victory for them and for other employees. No. 3, if I say they need to settle, then I want them to at least listen to what I say. It doesn’t mean they have to take my advice, but they need to promise me they’ll listen.
What other ways are there to resolve these disputes?
Well, if it’s a discrimination case, they first need to file with the Nevada Equal Rights Commission or the EEOC (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). There’s a format or a process through those agencies to settle if the employer wants to. If the employers are smart they ought to try and do that, but often times they won’t.
There seem to be a lot more lawyers involved in the defense of employment lawsuits. If that’s true, why do you think that is?
Absolutely. It’s a growth industry and there’re lots of local firms and there’re lots of national firms that are local. And they charge tremendous amounts of money. I’ve had a case where the defense charged over $1 million in legal fees for a case we offered to settle for $30,000.
Do you think the workplace is fair for Nevada’s employees?
In general, no, just because this state is a fairly conservative state. In the 20-plus years I’ve been doing it things are night and day different as far as how employers treat employees.
They’re much more conscientious about how they treat them, think twice before they fire them. They usually have some type of review process. If you complain, they investigate your complaints. When I started, if (you) complained, you were out the door. They didn’t even care. Casinos had what they call an at-will policy and they just fired you and asked questions later.
Do Nevada’s state and local governments adequately protect their workers?
Actually, it’s ironic, but I think the government employers are worse than the private in a lot of ways. Most of the government employees have rights through union contracts and stuff. But the places I’ve had the most difficulty have been the school district and the county.
And the school district, in particular, you’d think where everyone is a school teacher or used to be a school teacher they would treat people with professionalism and worry about their careers and it’s just the opposite. The teachers in this state (have) nothing going for them; it’s terrible how they treat them.
I don’t know. I analogize it to the way schools deal with kids. If I’m a teacher and there’s a kid in my class that acts up, I’m taught to make sure that kid backs down no matter what. The same thing happens with the principal with the teacher or the administrator with the principal.
If you dare to stand up or talk back, they just are unbending, and they just push you down and crush you. And they’ll spend $1 million doing it, which is very bizarre. That’s just the mentality out there.
Win or lose, they’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to prove that they’re right, where in none of these cases is anyone right. There’s always gray, somebody made a mistake, whatever.
What about the federal government and the laws that are out there? Do you think they adequately protect workers?
Yes. Although most people feel like, for example sex discrimination, (that) “I’m a woman, I was fired, that’s illegal.” It’s very difficult to prove you were fired because you’re a woman or a minority. The laws as they’ve been interpreted are very difficult. If it’s a blatant case, they protect you well, but in marginal cases it’s very difficult.
What can local, state and federal governments do to better protect workers? Are there other laws that need to be made?
There’re federal laws to protect (against) discrimination and most states have similar laws on the state books. Our state law doesn’t protect (against) discrimination because it doesn’t provide damages. So we can amend that to provide damages. Also, we have a sexual orientation law, but there’s no damages, so that could be improved.
What can businesses do to protect themselves against employee lawsuits?
I think just having some type of review process where you try to avoid the spur of the moment or shooting from the hip type of thing. I always tell employers if the person was bad they’re going to do it again. If it’s questionable, just rehire them, bring them back and if they’re bad a week from now, or two weeks from now, they’re going to do it again.
They just get so locked into, “This is our decision and we’re standing behind it, right or wrong.” And a lot of times, if it’s wrong, those are the ones that are expensive.
What has sparked your interest in the school district’s affairs?
Just coincidence. People came to me and were having problems and I thought, “This is a simple problem to resolve,” and presented it to them. And I said, “Look, here’s a case where this teacher complained to the legislators about the way things are going on. It’s clearly protected by the First Amendment. Just back off and let her do her job.”
And it was just like a red flag, they just went crazy. Instead of letting her do her job, they were just determined to get rid of her. That was one of the cases that went for $1.5 million in legal fees.
But, that kind of piqued my interest. It seemed like it was just that person, but the more I saw, the more I realized that’s just how they do business. Whatever it is, they were unwilling to admit that they had made a mistake.
It’s just, “Either you toe the line and play by our rules and if you dare to go outside, you dare to complain, you’re toast.”And that’s just their philosophy.
The problem with government is they don’t have a threshold of pain. The private employer pays $100,000 to a lawyer and they say, “Hey, wait a minute. Why are we paying this money?” The county pays $1 million to a lawyer and no one asks questions.
If you try to settle a case for $25,000 it goes to the county commission, and the county commission says, “Why are we paying $25,000?” But if you pay the lawyer $1 million to fight the employee, no one ever questions it.
And that’s the other issue local governments ought to address, to monitor legal fees — to not just look at the end result but, “Why are we spending this money to begin with.” If the bureaucrat who made the mistake is in charge of hiring a lawyer, then he doesn’t want to admit he made a mistake by settling, so he’s just going to say,”Pay them whatever it takes. Fight this person, crush them.”
Why is it so tough for lawyers to take on your type of cases?
It’s just so difficult. If you compare it to a TV ad about a car wreck, a person comes in, they’ve been injured, you take the medical bills, you send them to the insurance company, the insurance company gives you three times the medical bills and off you go.
A person comes into me and says, “I was wrongfully fired.” I say “OK, how long were you out of work?” “Six months.” I say, “OK, pay them for six months.” They say, “Drop dead.”
You were defeated in your race for a seat on the Clark County School Board. Why did you run?
I guess in retrospect it was a crazy idea. But having sued them for 15 years and seen them spending millions of dollars fighting my clients I thought, “Well, maybe I could get on the inside and rectify some of these issues.” No one seemed to want to listen to my ideas, but that was my thought.
Why do you think you lost?
The districts are very, very large. The incumbent, even though I wasn’t aware of this, was very popular. It’s just very difficult to raise money to really reach out to that large a group of people.
I thought if I just put my name out there and said, “Look I’m running against the incumbent,” I’d win hands down. That wasn’t the case.
Do you plan to run again for the school board?
My current goal is to run for the state legislature, but we’ll have to see.
It’s (Assemblywoman) Chris Giunchigliani, who is talking about running for (Clark) County Commission. If she runs for county commission, then I would run. But that’s down the road.
Do you have any other political aspirations?
That’s my current one.
Are you still involved with the state Democratic Party?
Not that active. I was chairman for four years and I’ve been an active Democrat all my life, but not on a day-to-day basis.
During the 2005 legislative session there was a bill drafted by the Clark County School District that would have revised the state’s legislation preventing employers from blacklisting workers. The bill didn’t pass, but is blacklisting of employees a problem in Nevada?
It is and it happens in two ways. First with respect to hotels, I don’t know how it happens and it maybe is just a conspiratorial philosophy. But it seems to me that if you dare to challenge a hotel with a discrimination case, that gets out and no other hotel is going to hire you.
Now how they put that into their database and know that, I couldn’t tell you. But I can tell you from experience that it is very difficult for a hotel employee who’s sued a hotel for discrimination to get a job at a different hotel. That’s just something I’ve observed and I don’t know how it works.
The other problem is that employers like the school district, where for Clark County there is only one employer for teachers and they have a policy that if they fire you can’t get rehired. I’m a lawyer. If I went out and did something bad, committed malpractice, took money, there’s a process where I could rehabilitate myself and come back and practice law.
But the school district doesn’t have that kind of a process. So as a professional teacher if I’m fired in Clark County, I could never get another job in Clark County. That really bothers me.
A lot of these people make silly mistakes like we all do, no one’s perfect. But you should never be blackballed for one incident, unless it’s murder or something like that. To prevent them from ever practicing their career without moving out of the state, to me, is wrong.
Does blacklisting happen only in the casinos or the school district?
If an employer knows that you’ve sued your last employer for discrimination, then it’s going to happen anyway. No one wants to hire somebody who sued their last employer. That’s what I tell clients is, “When you come in here, I’ll work with you, but get a job first. Because if we file suit before you get a job, you’re never going to get a job.”
How do you think the mergers between the casino companies are affecting Nevada’s workers?
There’s this unwritten rule, however it works, that you don’t get hired anyway. So if there’s only two employers what’s that going to mean?
Now they’ve publicly said that “We’re only going to view it by each hotel.” So if the Bellagio fires me, I can still work at the MGM, which I think would be great. I haven’t seen it in practice yet but it’s only been very recent, so I don’t know.
How effective do you think Nevada’s law protecting individuals against workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is?
Very ineffective, because as I said, there’s no hammer.
So what do you get?
Reinstated back pay and no legal fees. What happens if I’m a good employee, I can’t afford to sit around with no job. So I go out and get a job, so what do I have? I have no back pay to speak of. (For) back pay you subtract from what you would have gotten and what you do make. And so a lot of employers know that. They fire somebody, knowing they’re going to have to go out and get another job — there’s no real damages there. That’s why emotional distress and attorney’s fees are so critical. Even if my client gets $1, I can ask for legal fees.
As the U.S. Labor Department considers revising the Family and Medical Leave Act, do you think that law is effective in protecting the jobs of people who get sick or need to care for a sick family member?
It is, but there certainly could be improvements. Right now it only covers employers with (at least) 50 people, which means small employers aren’t covered. And you have to work (1,250) hours a year.
So like the school district, you’re talking about a lot of employees who work nine months who don’t qualify. There’re a lot of loopholes there. But it’s definitely much better than the alternative.
Is age discrimination a big area?
From my perspective, age is the most abused group, or the most people being affected right now. That’s primarily because as you get older you make more money, your health insurance costs the employer more money, so there’s a lot of incentive to get rid of you and hire somebody younger. They know they can’t do it, so they have to go through reorganizations and things like that to try to justify it.
But the reality is they’re just trying to make their workforce younger. And the casino industry, of course, likes young people anyway, so it’s a double whammy.