Lawsuit claims FCA officials fired disabled manager days before surgery

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

A former advertising manager is suing Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, alleging company supervisors violated state and federal laws by targeting, mistreating, then firing him because of his paraplegia and time off taken to deal with medical issues.

Marc Henretta’s termination last year, shortly before a scheduled surgery, “was motivated by animus on the basis of disability and in retaliation for opposing a violation of his civil rights, requesting accommodation for his disability and requesting medical leave under” the Family and Medical Leave Act, claimed the lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Detroit. 

“FCA could have accommodated Mr. Henretta’s disability by, among other things, allowing him to work remotely and take medical leave, without suffering undue hardship.”

Marc Henretta and his Charger Hellcat during the 2018 Roadkill Nights at M1 Concourse.

Henretta began a “long and distinguished career in marketing and sales at FCA,” formerly known as Chrysler, in 1984, according to the filing. A motorcycle accident nearly five years later left him a paraplegic; associated conditions, including stomach pain and digestive issues, caused Henretta to miss work 12-20 times a year, which he often covered with vacation days, his lawyers said.

Throughout his career, Henretta excelled, “routinely receiving glowing praise from peers and his superiors and outstanding performance evaluations, which, in turn, earned him several promotions, raises in his salary, and bonuses,” the filing said. He eventually became retail advertising manager, including overseeing Jeep brand ads; mentored employees; and served on FCA’s Diversability Team as well as the board for another diversity initiative, according to the suit.

Trouble didn’t begin until 2017, the lawsuit claims, when a new supervisor arrived and immediately started “issuing unjustified complaints about Mr. Henretta’s job performance, such as his work product ‘sucked’ and was ‘the poorest’ ” in a group, attorneys wrote.

That person also pulled Henretta from commercial shoots, removed him from the Jeep brand, once suggested a positive evaluation reviewed by peers was unearned “because I think you’re stupid and lazy” and made disparaging or humiliating remarks in front of co-workers, the filing said.

In early 2018, Henretta alerted human resources staff about his treatment, but nothing changed, so he filed an internal complaint with the FCA Equal Employment Opportunity Compliance office, which “issued a finding that there was insufficient evidence to support a conclusion of discrimination,” the suit alleges. 

After that, the supervisor excluded him from meetings, questioned his work and started tracking Henretta’s comings and goings, according to the filing. Henretta again complained to human resources and the compliance office, which “failed to conduct an effective investigation into Mr. Henretta’s allegations and issued a finding, on December 18, 2018, that management had not retaliated against him.”

The next month, the same HR official Henretta had complained to told him his health-related absences from 2018 were “unacceptable” but didn’t mention the right to seek a leave under FMLA. The act allows eligible workers up to 12 weeks of continuous or intermittent leave for a serious health condition leaving them unable to work.

Henretta alleges he later received the first disciplinary letter of his career for missing 10 days due to more hand and stomach pain.  

More absences were needed when Mr. Henretta’s hands degenerated to the point that he couldn’t dress himself, according to the suit. He was allowed to seek FMLA for that but not ongoing paraplegia-related stomach issues, even though that’s covered, his lawyers claim.

In August, eight days before hand surgery, Henretta was told of his dismissal for missing work once the previous month due to the ongoing digestive issues, according to the lawsuit.

Reached Wednesday night, FCA representatives said in a statement: "FCA has not been served with this lawsuit and therefore cannot comment on it. However, the company does not tolerate discrimination of any kind in the workplace based on a person's age, race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, or disability. All claims of discrimination are taken seriously and investigated thoroughly and in a timely manner and all violations are punishable up to and including termination."

Henretta’s lawsuit claims violations of FMLA and Michigan’s Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employers from discriminating against a qualified individual because they are disabled.

It seeks an order reinstating him.