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Citrus giant to pay $5M for defaming former employee

Citrus giant to pay $5M for defaming former employee

James Jordan said Wonderful Citrus fired him after 26 years of service and then spread rumors he had embezzled money from the company

By Reggie Ellis  @Reggie_SGN

TULARE COUNTY – A Tulare County man was awarded nearly $5 million in a lawsuit against the nation’s largest citrus producer.  

On Oct. 10, a federal district court jury awarded James K. Jordan almost $5 million in damages against his former employer, Wonderful Citrus Packing LLP, known for its small, easy peel “Halo” brand of mandarin oranges. Represented by Marderosian & Cohen in Fresno, Jordan filed the lawsuit on March 23, 2018 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California against his former employer on the grounds of age discrimination, wrongful termination, breach of contract, violation of California’s good faith and fair dealing laws, defamation of character, and emotional distress. 

According to the complaint, Jordan alleges that on Nov. 3, 2017, despite being a loyal employee of the defendants for more than 25 years, he was terminated at the age of 54 with no valid explanation as to why he’d been fired. He alleges he was replaced by someone much younger and with much less experience and qualifications. Prior to notifying Jordan of his termination, the company issued two emails 41 minutes apart to 300 to 400 employees notifying them of Jordan’s termination and clearly associated him with criminal activity in the form of theft and embezzlement with the following statement, “James Jordan was involved in criminal activity by stealing from the company,” according to Mick Marderosian, Jordan’s attorney. Jordan claimed the company began spreading false rumors about him to justify the firing, including that he was involved in changing time cards and was stealing from the company.

Marderosian argued that “Wonderful conducted a sham investigation which involved threats, intimidation, and coercion in order to fabricate a basis for terminating [Jordan].” Jordan’s attorney went on to state that “techniques employed by Wonderful in interviewing some of Plaintiff’s subordinates in an effort to bolster their decision to fire him included threatening employees with termination and even prompted at least one employee to pass out from the anxiety and the pressure imposed upon him. This was all pretextual and designed to support a fabricated and baseless bases for Mr. Jordan’s termination.”

Wonderful contended that Jordan “started off as a loyal employee” but “eventually turned into self-dealing.” The company claimed it obtained information in 2017 that suggested Jordan was stealing from the company. When Wonderful found out about the theft, the company says it rightfully terminated Jordan’s employment. “Instead of being ashamed of his conduct, Jordan has instead doubled down on his bad behavior and has initiated a near frivolous suit against Wonderful.”

The jury trial, which was conducted before Judge Anthony W. Ishii in Fresno, focused on the presentation of four weeks of evidence that revealed that Wonderful Citrus did not have reasonable grounds or proof of its accusations. Wonderful Citrus made no offer to try to settle the case before the jury announced its verdict.

The jury ruled that Wonderful was not in breach of contract but that the statements issued about Jordan by the company were false, and therefore damaging to his reputation in the agriculture industry. More specifically, the jury ruled that Wonderful failed to determine the truth of embezzlement allegations and that the company acted with ill will toward Jordan by falsely accusing Jordan of stealing from the company.  

Jordan, now 56 years of age, worked for Wonderful Citrus for almost 27 years as the senior director of Wonderful Citrus’ Northern Farming Division. A Central Valley native, Jordan has a bachelor’s degree in plant science from Fresno State University, and had developed a career managing and advising citrus farming operations. In February 1991, Jordan, then 27 years old, went to work for Paramount Citrus Association (now known as Wonderful Citrus Packing).

Jordan quickly moved up the ladder of the company when he was named a ranch supervisor overseeing 1,870 acres. His job duties included supervising the application of fertilizer, pruning, pesticide and herbicide sprays, the administration of time cards for ranch employees, working with outside vendors, and managing water. In 1999, Jordan was promoted to ranch manager and his territory and responsibilities more than doubled.

In 2008, 2009 and again in 2014 Jordan was given more ranches to manage. Ultimately, Jordan was promoted to senior farming director in charge of seven direct reports and more than 7,000 acres of citrus.

“Mr. Jordan was well regarded by his supervisors, peers, and customers and was considered to be an excellent farmer and could get things done,” the lawsuit states. “He was able to execute at a high level and was the “go to guy” for special projects. He was charged with helping develop and train new workers. Mr. Jordan’s contribution included developing the manner in which mandarin oranges were farmed.”

Jordan, after dedicating his entire adult life to citrus farming, said he wasn’t extended the courtesy of a valid explanation as to why he was being terminated on Nov. 3, 2017, was not provided with a fair opportunity to respond, and was not even offered a severance package or his bonus for the almost three decades of work. 

“Jordan dedicated his entire adult life to citrus farming and he wasn’t extended the courtesy of a valid explanation as to why he was being terminated, was not provided with a fair opportunity to respond, and was not even offered a severance package or his bonus for the almost three decades of work,” Jordan’s complaint stated.

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