ROCKLAND, Maine — A Warren woman with a life-threatening allergy to bee stings has filed a lawsuit in Knox County Superior Court saying she was forced to choose between her job at Borealis Breads and her safety when she was scheduled to work at the bee-friendly Common Ground Country Fair in 2008.
Brenda Taylor, a former full-time retail clerk at the bread company, filed a complaint and request for a jury trial on Aug. 27 for a wrongful termination and disability discrimination lawsuit.
Taylor has a medical diagnosis of anaphylaxis, and one bee sting could kill her or cause her to be brain damaged, according to the civil court complaint.
“I love my job … but no job is worth dying for,” she wrote on Sept. 15, 2008, in an e-mail to her general manager, the complaint states. “I hope you’d agree with me on this?”
The Maine Human Rights Commission ruled in a May 24 decision that there is evidence that Borealis Breads denied “reasonable accommodation” for Taylor’s physical disability and also discriminated against her under the Whistleblower’s Protection Act.
Taylor and her attorney Maria Fox of Portland received a letter from the commission in July stating that “conciliation had failed” and authorizing them to file suit.
Jim Amaral, the owner and founder of the Wells-based Borealis Breads, said Friday afternoon that he is looking forward to having more evidence come out during the trial.
“Our 17-year history of how we operate would indicate that this type of lawsuit is not in the character of the company,” he said in a phone interview. “We strongly, strongly believe that we did not discriminate in any fashion whatsoever.”
In her lawsuit, Taylor is asking for reinstatement of her job, back pay and reimbursement for lost health, Social Security and other benefits. She also is seeking compensatory damages and punitive damages. The amounts are to be determined at trial, according to the lawsuit.
Taylor wrote last week in an e-mail to the Bangor Daily News that for her, the lawsuit has never been about getting financial compensation.
“I’m a widow with six daughters, a stepson, and several grandchildren,” she wrote. “I am all about my family. I need to be here for them as long as possible, and to be put in that much danger when it’s avoidable was too much for me to take.”
According to the MHRC’s investigator’s report, Borealis Breads officials said that Taylor “walked off the job site” before the Common Ground Country Fair schedule was posted and that they had no medical evidence in their records about her bee allergy.
But two other employees interviewed by the investigator said that Taylor’s bee allergy was well-known there — and that she was told she “had to” work at the fair.
When Taylor was first went to work at the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity in September 2007, she never had attended before and did not realize how remote it was — or how many bees would be attracted to the Borealis Breads table, which featured samples of granola and other sweet things, according to the complaint. She asked a company official not to be sent back for the second day, the documents say.
“Plaintiff feared she would be stung by a bee and would be too far from a hospital or other adequate emergency health care,” the complaint states. “[The] Assistant Manager told Plaintiff that she would not reschedule her and that if Plaintiff did not go to [Common Ground Country Fair] the second day, she would be fired.”
Taylor did work the next scheduled shift but told the assistant manager that she was “not comfortable” going to the fair “ever again” because of her allergy and informed the general manager that the experience had been a “nightmare,” according to the complaint.
In August the next year, Taylor said she would work double shifts in the retail store if necessary to avoid the bees, and then on Sept. 15 she sent the general manager the e-mail regarding her concerns about her deadly allergy, the complaint says.
But three days later, Taylor’s assistant manager told a group of employees that if anyone didn’t like the schedule, they could “walk,” the complaint said.
Taylor then learned she was scheduled to work at the Common Ground Country Fair that Saturday.
“[Taylor] was devastated,” the complaint reads. “[She] left to take her lunch break and cried in her car because she felt she had no choice but to resign her job because she could not work at the Common Ground Fair without risking injury or death.”
The company is challenging Taylor’s allegations, Amaral said.
“It needs to be dealt with in court,” the company owner said. “We’re looking forward to going to court, and we believe the evidence will show that we’ve never discriminated in this kind of case.”