Time stood still when the robber pointed the gun at Laressia Carr’s face.
In that moment, the 50 year old bank teller felt alone, even though she was surrounded by people when two masked robbers walked int the Washington Mutual Bank on Olive Avenue in September 2002.
A priest knelt on the floor praying, another customer lay in a fetal position, and the robber stood in front of Carr, holding a gun inches from her head.
“When a gun is that close to you, nobody can save you,” said Carr. “You have to save yourself.
“I knew I was going to do everything in could to get out of this situation alive.”
Carr did get out alive. Police caught the robbers just minutes after they left the bank; they were both sent to prison.
But for Carr, those terrifying minutes on a Tuesday afternoon were just the beginning of a nearly three year ordeal that ended with Carr suing Washington Mutual.
She claimed the bank where she had worked happily for 14 years refused to help her cope when she developed post traumatic stress disorder as a result of the robbery.
Today, Carr can claim victory. A jury agreed the bank failed to help Carr and awarded her $800,000 in damages in late June.
“I think it sends a message that even the little guy counts for something,” said Carr. “I’m so glad that we won because this makes (Washington Mutual) accountable.”
Washington Mutual plans to appeal the verdict, said spokesman Gary Kishner.
“We sympathize with Ms. Carr as a victim of the robbery,” said Kishner in a written statement. “However, we continue to assert that Washington Mutual provided for every request made by Ms. Carr and her physicians to accommodate her needs as it pertains to her condition.”
But Carr said the bank essentially turned its back on her even though she repeatedly asked for help as her emotional state deteriorated.
“I didn’t just one day wake up and decide they weren’t helping me,” said Carr. “I tried from the beginning to get help and I denied it.”
“And if an employee who’s been there 14 years and had excellent evaluations can’t get it, who can?”
Carr first noticed something was wrong in the days following the robbery. She felt nervous, lost her appetite, and started having nightmares.
She talked to a counselor Washington Mutual provided and said she was afraid to go back into her bank.
But Carr went back, and her hours doubled from part-time to full-time because another teller was fired after the robbery, for reasons unrelated to the incident, said Carr.
Carr said she wanted to return to work because she liked her job. She was good at it, and was known as a team player at the bank. She describe herself as a “people person” who enjoyed working with the customers.
But after the robbery, interacting with customers and standing in the same spot where the robber had threatened her life proved too overwhelming.
She vomited in the bathroom, burst into spontaneous tears and suffered from panic attacks.
She visited a local psychologist who diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder which is considered a disability under state law. The doctor wrote up a proposal about how the bank could help Carr work in a less-stressful environment.
But Carr said that when she talked to her manager about the plan, he suggested that she shouldn’t be working at all, and said he would have to demote her and cut her pay.
Meanwhile, Carr’s nerves were further frayed by the robbers’ trial, where she served as the state’s main witness. Her testimony was scheduled and then postponed three times.
Carr said mentally preparing to relive the day of the robbery on the witness stand three times put her on edge. She lost weight, couldn’t sleep, dark circles appeared under her eyes.
Eventually she did testify. Jurors found the robbers guilty of armed robbery. The man who threatened Carr with the gun – facing his third conviction or third strike – was sentenced to 63 years in prison.
Around that time, Carr asked the bank’s human resources department for help. They told her they would put together their own proposal about how to make her job less stressful, but it never happened, said Carr.
Finally, Carr called the Merced County Employment Development Department, which referred her to the Department of Fair Housing and Employment, the state agency charged with protecting employees from discrimination.
Laws that protect employees in California are among the toughest in the nation, said Paul Ramsey, spokesman for the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.
Employers must provide reasonable accommodations for disabled employees so they can perform the essential functions of their job. Employers must also engage in an interactive process to discuss possible accommodations, said Ramsey. Agency representatives told Carr that Washington Mutual could have violated her rights if it refused to accommodate her disability. They recommended she hire a lawyer.
Carr found Jill Telfer, a Sacramento attorney who specializes in employee rights cases.
Telfer said she took Carr’s case because the fight with Washington Mutual – one of the largest banks in the country – was a David and Goliath” story. Washington Mutual has more than 55,000 employees nationwide, with branches in 15 dates, said Kishner.
“I saw that it was a big bank,” said Telfer. “A lot of attorneys get scared and wont take that on.
But that’s the only way you make a change. In life you only make a difference if you take the tough fight sometimes.”
Carr and her husband were ready for a fight, too. They decided they could weather the emotional and financial strain of a lawsuit.
“We could afford to take this on,” said Carr. “Because no matter what, I wanted to show them that this was not acceptable.
Carr filed suit against the bank in May 2004. Her suit claimed that Washington Mutual had discriminated against her because of her disability, and that the bank failed to engage in the interactive process and failed to provide her a reasonable accommodation.
Afterward, the bank sent Carr to doctors hired by Washington Mutual’s attorneys. They recommended that she stop working in a job where she tendered money with the public.
Washington Mutual offered Carr as a job as a teller in the drive through window, but she would still be responsible for overseeing transactions at the bank’s front counter. Carr as for a job as a loan servicing agent instead; the bank did not respond.
After more back and forth, the case ended up in front of a jury in late May. Three weeks later, the jurors rendered a verdict: Washington Mutual had failed to accommodate Carr’s disability and had not engaged in the interactive process to discuss possible accommodations.
The jury awarded Carr damages for lost earnings and emotional distress totaling $800,000.
“We believe the jury has made an error in their verdict,” said Washington Mutual spokesman Kishner.
“We’ve always expressed our concern for Ms. Carr’s well being,” said Kishner. “We feel we’ve made accommodations to assist her in coping with her condition.”
Appeals could keep the case in court for another year or two, said Telfer.
Carr said the case isn’t about the money, it’s about Washington Mutual changing how it helps employees.
“What I want is for the next teller that this happens to, that they don’t have to go through what I went through.”