Lawsuit claims Mercedes-Benz dealership in The Woodlands fired man over jury duty

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- A 19-year-old juror has filed a lawsuit against a Mercedes-Benz dealership for firing him in the midst of jury service.

Zach White is a 2018 high school graduate and had been working as a valet driver at the Mercedes-Benz of The Woodlands since last fall.

"I really enjoyed working there, driving a Mercedes every day, it was cool," said White.

White, whose father is a local police detective, says he long had the values of public service instilled upon him. He even plans on joining the military after college. When he was called to jury duty in February, there was never much doubt he would show up.

"My civic duty as an American citizen," said White, who tells ABC13 Eyewitness News that his supervisor at the dealership blew off the summons.

"He just said, 'Just toss it, they won't care.' I'm like, 'Hmm, I'm going to talk to my dad.' My dad was like, 'Oh, you got to go, unless you want to go to jail,' and I was like, 'I don't really want to go to jail.'"

White was picked as an alternate juror in a civil trial in the courtroom of Judge Jaclanel McFarland.

The trial lasted four weeks. Toward the end of the trial, White tried to log into his work website and check his paystub, and found out he could not log in.

In the termination letter obtained by ABC13, jury service was mentioned. However, the letter stated that White was fired for "abandoning" his job because he did not show up for days of work away from his jury duty, as he had agreed to.

When lawyers in the case he was serving heard about White's firing, they cried foul.

"The letter from Mercedes-Benz references explicitly his jury service, so it's clearly on their minds," said Lee Thweatt, one of the attorneys in the civil trial. "People who serve on juries deserve to be respected, and their job will be waiting for them when they return from jury service."

Geoff Berg was the opposing counsel in the trial, and he too was shocked.

"It is critically important to the function of our government, to our society, that people be permitted to serve as jurors without consequence by their employer," Berg said.

Berg, Thweatt, and all the lawyers in the civil trial were so outraged they decided to represent White for free. They point out that the law clearly protects jurors from retaliation for serving.

The judge in the original case, McFarland, says it was good to see lawyers on opposing sides agree that jury service is important. The judge even considered hauling the Mercedes-Benz dealership into court to answer questions.

"Jury service is fundamental to our democracy," Judge McFarland said. "This was a young man who had come, who had participated faithfully in doing his service, and was punished by his employer. That's just wrong."

When asked about the lawsuit, Mercedes-Benz of The Woodlands said they do not comment on pending litigation.

White is now looking for a full-time job.

Mercedes-Benz of The Woodlands released this statement on Thursday morning.

To our customers, friends, colleagues, and community:

A lawsuit filed by a former Mercedes-Benz of The Woodlands employee, Zach White, has recently been reported in the local news. Mr. White claims that he was fired because of his jury service. We have investigated the allegations and are now in a position to respond. The allegations are categorically false. We would now like to set the record straight and provide our customers, employees, and community with the actual facts, together with recorded and written evidence.

In short, Zach White was not terminated as a result of his jury service. When he was selected to serve as an alternate juror, Mr. White volunteered to work on Mondays and Saturdays, regular work days of his, when the trial was not in session. He then failed to show up for three consecutive Monday and Saturday shifts. On the first occasion, when asked, he claimed that he was in court. On the next two he offered no explanation and failed to return numerous calls and text messages. That is why Zach White was terminated. In fact, Mr. White lied about being in court during the first missed shift. The court did not hold trial on that day. In our view, Zach White abused our court system by using jury duty as a cover to shirk his responsibilities to his employer.

Mercedes-Benz of The Woodlands has always been, and continues to be, a strong supporter of our court system and law enforcement, including full support of its employees when they are called for jury duty. We realize that the jury is the cornerstone of our legal system, and at no point have we, or would we, penalize any employee based on his or her service as a juror. That is not what happened to Zach White. To the contrary, Mr. White used his jury duty as an excuse to skip work on days that did not conflict with his service, even after he had volunteered for the shifts. He then ignored repeated inquiries from his supervisors and responded only on the occasion when he lied about being in court. That is not acceptable, and we do not believe that his termination is inconsistent with our full endorsement and support of the judiciary or the importance of our employees' participation in the jury process.

The dealership gave Mr. White every opportunity to respond before terminating him. Even in its termination letter, it invited Mr. White to explain his absences and lack of communication, with the possibility of rescinding the termination. Instead of taking that opportunity, Mr. White filed a lawsuit in which he seeks to recover hundreds of thousands of dollars. We look forward to the opportunity to have our conduct judged by a fair and impartial jury.

The dealership also posted text messages and audio of calls with White, on their website.

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