Lawsuit Claims A Zoom Call Was Unlawful Imprisonment
from the zoom-fatigue-taken-to-new-levels dept
We’ve all spent more than our fair share of time on excessively long Zoom calls over the past two years of pandemic land. However, it’s difficult to believe that any Zoom call can reach the level of “unlawful imprisonment,” as is alleged in a recent lawsuit. Now, it should be noted that there is a tragic story behind this lawsuit — a man killed himself in front of his wife and children, after having a self-admitted breakdown following what he felt were accusations of criminal activity from his long-term employer. That said, the actual complaint from the grieving widow… seems unlikely to succeed in court.
The case was filed by Gabriella Tabak, whose husband Adam tragically killed himself earlier this year. He worked for Recology, a local garbage company (and, in fact, the company that collects my own trash each week). Recology has been steeped in controversy, and as that linked article notes, it has been “plagued by scandal for decades” including multiple claims of bribery to get certain contracts. Most recently, this involved the DOJ charging two top Recology executives with bribing San Francisco’s Department of Public Works (DPW) director Mohammed Nuru with nearly a million dollars. Nuru has also been implicated in other bribery scandals as well… and more recently was arrested for attempted robbery with a knife (he claimed he was joking) at a food bank where he was a long term volunteer.
Recology, for its part, earlier this year agreed to repay customers $95 million in overcharged garbage fees, which were put in place due to its relationship with Nuru. Then, a couple months ago, the company settled the federal case against it, admitting it had bribed Nuru, and agreeing to pay $36 million more in criminal penalties.
That, then, is the backdrop to this other case. Adam Tabak was a financial controller for Recology, and a year ago, as the company was investigating the still ongoing bribery scandal, the company’s top lawyer, Cary Chen, and outside lawyers from the firm of Morrison & Forrester, had a meeting over Zoom with Tabak. From the very bizarre legal complaint (filled with typos), it seems clear that Tabak felt that he was being accused of criminal activity as part of this investigation, but the complaint is, shall we say, somewhat theatrical. It kicks off with two quotes from Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” and repeatedly plays up the fact that Tabak was Jewish, and suggests that he was being targeted because of his religion. After the meeting, Tabak committed himself to a hospital, and then later took his own life. From the lawsuit:
As it relates to Plaintiffs, the essential facts of this case commence at a meeting called by RECOLOGY?s inhouse counsel, Mr. Chen. The meeting, which occurred on December 1, 2020, was attended by RECOLOGY?s inhouse counsel, Mr. Chen, and at least four outside counsel from the firm of Morrison & Forrester, and Adam Tabak. The specific words articulated by Defendant?s representatives at this meeting were so threatening, hostile, oppressive, and fraudulent that Plaintiff was sent into a psychotic breakdown. At no time during the meeting did any of the lawyers advise Tabak that he was not a target of any investigation. In fact, Chen and outside counsel, through their words, actions, body language, and representations, in essence accused Tabak of criminal or civil or moral wrongdoing. While none of these accusations were true, accusing the Jewish financial controller of improprieties met an ancient anti-Semitic trope. Following the meeting, Mr. Tabak did not eat or sleep for three (3) days. He voluntarily had himself committed to a hospital on a 5150 hold. Ultimately, on January 2, 2021, just one month after that offensive meeting, Plaintiff took his own life by stabbing himself with a kitchen knife in front of his wife and children. Plaintiff worked for RECOLOGY for fifteen (15) years and was never disciplined, investigated, or questioned during his long tenure. He consistently was given good reviews, raises, and promotions.
The complaint even admits that some time after the meeting, one of the lawyers told him directly that he was “not under investigation” and that the meeting was not meant to accuse him of anything. However, the lawsuit argues by then it was too late. The complaint itself reads pretty tragically, detailing a clear mental health situation that Tabak had following the meeting.
Again, all of this is very tragic, but the issues that are relevant here are the false imprisonment claims about the meeting, which was conducted over Zoom. The details of how it is “false imprisonment” are not particularly well laid out in the complaint. Basically it says he wanted to leave the meeting and he was told not to. The complaint does not say the meeting was over Zoom. It certainly implies that it was done in a room together with the 5 lawyers:
During the meeting on December 1, 2020, Defendant used threats, fraud, deceit, menace, and unreasonable duress to intentionally deprive Adam Tabak?s freedom of movement. Adam did not voluntarily consent to staying at the meeting. In fact, Tabak physically attempted to leave the meeting; however, due to intentional threats, fraud, deceit, menace and unreasonable duress by Defendant, Adam was not allowed to leave the room. Prior to the meeting, Adam was given no agenda. He did not know what the purpose of the meeting was. He was not given an opportunity to review any document or file prior to the meeting. Even as the meeting commenced, the persons conducting the meeting, including Cory Chen and the four or five others, never advised Adam as to whether he was being investigated for wrongdoing or whether or not the interrogatories were simply attempting to garner information. Instead, during the meeting, the interrogatories made it clear that Adam was to be the scapegoat for the fraudulent and illegal actions at RECOLOGY.
(As a side note, this paragraph calls Recology’s General Counsel “Cory Chen” even though elsewhere in the complaint he is called “Gary Chen,” but neither appears to be correct! According to the company’s own website, his name is actually Cary Chen — as noted, the complaint is riddled with typos and does not appear particularly well drafted).
It was only after this lawsuit was filed that Recology pointed out that this “false imprisonment” happened over Zoom. The company has also denied any wrongdoing (well, in this case… the bribery cases are another story). Not that Recology seems like a particularly good company, but this lawsuit seems unlikely to get very far, and I do not think there will be any precedent set that your overly long Zoom meetings count as false imprisonment.