Law360 (March 18, 2021, 1:02 PM EDT) -- A fired paralegal filed suit in Michigan federal court accusing a law firm of giving him the ax after he was exposed to COVID-19 and spent one morning working from home, then threatening him with criminal prosecution to silence him.
Justin Galea had worked for Oliver Law Group PC for nearly two years when, on Jan. 6, he found out he had been exposed to COVID-19, according to the complaint he filed Wednesday.
Galea said he told the firm, which consists of three attorneys and a few other staff members, that he needed to quarantine according to federal, state and local COVID-19 guidance, according to the complaint. But in a text, one of the firm's attorneys told Galea, "unless you have symptoms expect you tomorrow-thx!" he claimed.
Galea alleged he texted his boss before work the next day, saying he had confirmed the firm's COVID-19 guidelines required employees to quarantine if they were exposed to the virus. He told the attorney he would schedule a rapid test the same day, according to the complaint.
"I just feel more comfortable working from home today," Galea said in a text, according to the complaint. "I just don't wanna put anyone at risk."
However, when Galea attempted to work remotely, he found himself locked out of the firm's accounts, according to the complaint. The firm then told him his remote access was canceled and asked him to provide a COVID-19 test result, he said.
Galea tested negative before noon and was at the office by 2 p.m., according to the complaint.
But when he showed up, the attorney requested Galea's office key and told him he was "done," he alleged. The attorney didn't respond when he asked why, according to the complaint.
The next morning, Galea emailed the attorney a request for his personnel file, he said. In a response 30 minutes later, the attorney suggested she would tell the police about a crime he allegedly committed, he claimed.
That afternoon, the attorney emailed Galea again, saying, "You should reconsider your efforts to exact revenge for your for-cause termination that you alone are responsible for; and avoid a felony conviction," he claimed. He alleged her comments were a threat that she would report him to the police if he decided to sue.
Galea said the attorney ultimately told him he was fired based on information she knew only because she was representing him pro bono in a custody matter. The firm withdrew as Galea's counsel after he was fired, according to the complaint.
Instead, Galea argued, the firing was retaliation for his decision to quarantine. The decision violated the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and state law, he said.
Galea also alleged the firm failed to pay him overtime even though he frequently worked more than 40 hours per week, violating the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Galea seeks back and front pay and compensatory, liquidated, emotional distress and punitive damages.
Noah Hurwitz, an attorney for Galea, told Law360 Thursday he was "alarmed by how many law firms continue to ignore the Department of Labor's wage and hour guidance that legal staff, including law clerks and paralegals, are not typically exempt from overtime pay."
"Lawyers have a heightened obligation to understand and apply the law," Hurwitz added.
An attorney at Oliver Law Group couldn't comment Thursday on the suit.
Galea is represented by Noah Hurwitz of NachtLaw PC.
Counsel information for Oliver Law Group wasn't immediately available Thursday.
The case is Galea v. Oliver Law Group PC, case number 2:21-cv-10604, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.
--Editing by Vincent Sherry.
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