Connecticut Law Firm Broder & Orland, LLC (along with its founding partner Carole Topol Orland, Esq.) is facing serious allegations in a lawsuit filed by the firm’s former employee, Kathleen Russell. Ms. Russell, former assistant of Ms. Orland, alleges that she was fired so that the firm would not have to pay her the proper benefits under the firm’s ERISA retirement plan and that she was not properly compensated for all the hours that she worked.
Kathleen Russell was initially hired on January 3, 2013 as a temporary receptionist. Eventually, she became Orland’s assistant. During her employment with Broder & Orland, Russell alleged that she worked no less than 48 hours per week, but also had periods where she worked in excess of 50 hours per week as Carole Topol Orland’s assistant. She also alleged that she worked through her lunch period and was expected to respond to emails from Orland even during her scheduled time off. Ms. Russell’s complaint stated she made an annual salary of $55,000.00. Russell alleges through her attorney, Anthony R. Minchella of Minchella & Associates, LLC, that she was not properly compensated for her work in excess of 40 hours each week, that her employer knew she worked through lunch, and that the firm did not keep proper records of the hours she worked and the pay she was entitled to receive.
Ms. Russell also alleged that she was terminated on November 4, 2016 around 1:00 PM because “the firm had grown and their needs changed.” Ms. Russell was over the age of 55 when she worked for Broder & Orland and was required to be part of a defined benefit plan. This plan was implemented one year after Ms. Russell was hired. The firm acted as the fiduciary and had control of the operation and administration of the plan. Ms. Russell alleged in her complaint that she was fired in order to stop her from being properly vested and so that the senior partners could increase their contributions into the plan without paying her the same benefits. It is alleged that Broder & Orland, LLC violated their position as fiduciary of the plan by not acting in Ms. Russell’s best interest as a participant.
In other words the lawsuit alleges that Russell was fired by Orland so the partners could make more money and not pay their employees a lawful wage!
Ms. Russell has asked the court for back pay, front pay, reinstatement, compensatory damages, punitive damages, liquidated damages, attorneys’ fees, an accounting of the ERISA benefit plan (including individual and matching contributions), costs, and any other legal and equitable relief the court would grant. Generally awards for punitive damages are not covered by law firms insurance policies, meaning that the Carol Topol Orland and her firm may have to pay for damages out of their own pockets. Russell also requested a trial by jury.
Did Broder & Orland Violate Federal and State Employment Laws? Maybe.
Ultimately, it will be up to the jury to decide whether Broder & Orland violated federal and Connecticut state employment laws. Yet, it’s important to explain the basics of federal and state employment law because they apply to anyone who is employed.
In our view this lawsuit doesn’t look good for the firm, even if the case settles or the allegations are found to not have merit.
Ms. Russell alleges that Broder & Orland, LLC along with Carole Topol Orland, Esq., violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by not paying her for the more than 40 hours each week that she routinely worked. Under the FLSA, employees may be considered exempt from overtime pay or non-exempt. Yet, employers can’t just pick and choose who will be considered exempt and who won’t. It’s also not just decided by who is paid an annual salary. Salaried workers, such as Ms. Russell, can be considered non-exempt.
If it were only based on salary, Kathleen Russell may have been considered exempt. Yet, under FLSA we also have to look at the type of work that the employee performs. Going back to her complaint, Ms. Russell alleged some key items:
- She routinely worked more than 40 hours per week.
- She was not allowed to order items for the firm’s kitchen or for office supplies.
- She was reprimanded for once spending $100.00 to store files that were scheduled for shredding.
- She was expected to respond to emails even during her scheduled time off.
Even without any sort of legal training, it’s plain to see that based on the second and third points Ms. Russell needed to get the firm’s permission to do just about anything. The FLSA does state that some administrative and professional employees can be classified as exempt, but they must have the authority to act with discretion in significant matters. In the complaint and according to FLSA standards, Ms. Russell clearly was not allowed to act with discretion in significant matters. Under the FLSA, when an employee does not have authority to act with a certain amount of discretion, they are considered non-exempt (even if they are salaried) and they are entitled to overtime pay.
With regards to the first point, Ms. Russell stated in her complaint that her scheduled hours were 8:30 am to 5:30 pm during the week days. She also stated that she was often there early and stayed late because “Broder and Carole Topol Orland, Esq. expected her to answer [the phone]” even if it rang at or after 5:30 pm. Ms. Russell further alleged that she was expected to respond in a timely manner to emails she received during her scheduled time off and was required to do so using her personal computer or tablet.
Connecticut state law, also cited in the lawsuit, has its own “duties test” to help determine whether an employee is exempt or non-exempt. Although there are administrative and professional exceptions, Ms. Russell would have needed to supervise other people and be able to exercise independent judgment in her duties in order to be considered exempt under state law.
Again, the jury will be the decision-maker when it comes to whether Kathleen Russell should have been paid overtime by Broder & Orland, LLC because of her consistent schedule of more than 40 hours each week. For we, the people, to keep up with and understand the case at hand as it moves forward it is important to understand the duties and pay associated with whether an employee is legally exempt or non-exempt. This cursory glance certainly gives credibility to the plaintiff and her legal team.
ERISA & Fiduciary Duties
ERISA is another federal law that Ms. Russell alleges her former employer (namely, Carole Topol Orland, Esq., and her firm Broder & Orland, LLC) violated. ERISA is an acronym for Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. It puts minimum standards into place for private industry (non-government employers) retirement plans. To be a defined plan, it must be employer funded, promise a specific monthly benefit for retirement, or tell you how to figure out what you’ll get each month when you retire.
To participate in the plan, you have work for the employer for a certain amount of time or a certain amount of hours. With this type of plan, employees are immediately vested in their own contributions and their earnings. When an employer matches, it takes longer to fully vest on that money. Generally, employees have to work around seven years to be fully vested. Of course, this can also depend on the type of ERISA plan in place.
When someone is named as a fiduciary of anything, it means that they have a legal obligation to do what is in the best interest of the recipient(s). Ms. Russell alleges that her termination stopped her from becoming 60% vested and prevented her from receiving all of the benefits that she should have received. She also alleged that the firm violated its fiduciary responsibilities toward her as a recipient of the ERISA plan.
We’ve reached to Carole Topol Orland for comment before this story was published, but she was unavailable. USA Herald invites Ms. Orland to contact us with a statement related to this matter if she wishes to do so.
No One Is Above the Law, Including Carole Topol Orland
Say what you will above state and federal government, but when it comes to employment law, we have excellent regulations put into place to protect workers like Kathleen Russell. Whether someone is entitled to overtime pay isn’t (thankfully) at the sole discretion of employers. Both federal and state laws guide employers (and inform employees) about the actual duties the employee would need in order for the employer to not compensate for overtime. The same can be said for retirement. It’s up to we, the people, to understand the law and to know our rights so that we can protect ourselves and ensure that we’re able to sufficiently provide for ourselves once we hit retirement age. If you have questions about whether your employer should pay you for overtime or about your retirement account, contact a reputable licensed employment law attorney in your area. Licensed attorneys are the only people allowed to give legal advice
We will continue to provide updates to our readers related to this important employment law case. Both the plaintiff, Kathleen Russel and her legal team, and the defendants, Broder & Orland, LLC and Carole Topol Orland, Esq., were contacted for statements and no reply was received by our deadline.
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