A federal jury in Alexandria on Friday found that Linda Rabbitt, a construction executive who has been outspoken about promoting women’s careers in the construction industry as chief executive of Alexandria-based Rand Construction, retaliated against her former executive assistant for taking medical leave under the Family Medical Leave Act, attorneys involved in the case said.
The case went to trial last week in U.S. District Court for Virginia’s Eastern District after the two parties failed to reach a settlement earlier this year, said a spokesman for the plaintiff.
Former executive assistant Arlene Fry, 64, alleged that she was abruptly fired by Rabbitt for taking a two-week leave last year to treat symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Frye had alleged retaliation under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The jury found in favor of Fry concerning the FMLA case, awarding her $50,555, but ruled in favor of Rand on the ADA.
“Ms. Fry was very happy with the verdict because up until now it had been put upon her that she had fallen short of her responsibility,” said Nicholas Woodfield, an attorney representing Fry. “She feels very vindicated that she wasn’t terminated in response to her duties.”
Throughout the proceedings Rand argued that Fry is not entitled to any relief. Anthony Pierce, an attorney representing Rand, said in a statement Saturday Friday’s verdict was a victory for Rand.
“Fundamentally, the jury simply did not believe Ms. Fry’s story. We are pleased that the jury agreed with Rand Construction on the great majority of her allegations, finding all but one of them baseless and awarding only a tiny fraction of what she had been seeking,” Pierce said in a statement. “With this outcome, the jury finding that Ms. Fry stole confidential company emails — some of which had nothing to do with her case during the trials — and Ms. Fry’s other claims having either been abandoned by her or dismissed before trial, we are confident that Rand Construction will prevail completely in subsequent proceedings.”
A legal complaint filed on Fry’s behalf alleges a pattern of mistreatment by Rabbitt against two other executive assistants.
The complaint alleged Rand posted a job advertisement for Fry’s replacement the day after Fry left on medical leave, and, at the time, Rabbitt “did not know what the [FMLA] was.”
Fry said she learned later that she had been fired, according to the complaint.
“Rabbitt admittedly stopped viewing Fry, an employee of Rand for 8½ years, as ‘dependable’ only after Fry informed Rand of Fry’s disability and the need for [FMLA] leave,” the complaint states.
The complaint also alleges that Susan Boyle, who was Rabbitt’s executive assistant before Fry, was similarly forced to resign while on medical leave after suffering a spinal injury.
The complaint accuses Rand of creating an “archaic environment and culture” in the workplace, citing a forwarded email in which Rabbitt allegedly said of Fry: “I think when [Fry] takes her medication for bipolar or whatever she has she becomes a snail.”
The allegations offered a striking contrast with Rabbitt’s public image as an employer. For years Rabbitt has been among a handful of female executives to grace the C-suite of a local construction company. She stepped into the business world in 1981 as a secretary at an accounting firm following a brief teaching career. Later she became an executive assistant at Peat Marwick, now known as KPMG, a position that she says accelerated her career.
“That job gave me a foundation in business,” she told the New York Times in 2013. “The managing partner took me under his wing, and other executives there, who are still friends of mine, taught me about business, as well.”
Rabbitt was promoted to a management position in the firm’s marketing department. In 1985 she joined another female business executive in founding Hart Construction, which folded four years later.
She founded Rand in 1989 and gradually carved out a niche focusing on commercial interiors. The privately held company has since grown to $300 million in annual revenue, the firm disclosed in a survey last year. Rabbitt oversees a U.S. workforce that has exceeded 250 employees, including 140 in the Washington region.
Rabbitt has been an outspoken advocate for women’s careers in the construction industry, anchoring speaking engagements across the D.C. area, where she discusses leadership strategies for women and shares her experiences.
She said she has set up training courses at her company aimed specifically at helping female executives to advance, including primers on how to build business relationships and courses on how to dress professionally.
She also has a policy of offering employees interest-free loans, she said.
Rabbitt has said her approach to those training sessions is to provide women with strategies and defenses they need to navigate a male-dominated industry.
“At a certain point you have to accept the reality of the playing field you’re on, and if you can’t do that, you can always find a different playing field,” she told The Washington Post last year.
Correction: The headline on this story previously stated the jury had found Rand CEO Linda Rabbitt liable. The jury had actually found Rand liable, not the CEO.
News researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.