Onni fired general counsel for refusing to work from office: Lawsuit

Joe Rose said Downtown LA developer violated state and city stay-at-home orders

Wilshire Courtyard, Onni CEO Rossan De Cotitiis, and Times Mirror square (Credit: Onni Group)
Wilshire Courtyard, Onni CEO Rossan De Cotitiis, and Times Mirror square (Credit: Onni Group)

Do quarantine orders keep your boss from ordering you into the office?

Onni Group’s former general counsel said they should, and has filed a lawsuit against the developer to argue his point.

Joe Rose said Onni fired him in June after he refused to work in its Downtown Los Angeles office, citing coronavirus concerns and his wife’s diabetes.

Rose filed the suit last week in L.A. County Superior Court, alleging wrongful termination and employment discrimination because of disability.

Rose started working with the company in May 2019, according to the complaint, and began working from home in mid-March during city and state stay-at-home orders.

“Defendants wished to reopen their offices after initially closing their business due to the Covid-19 pandemic,” according to the complaint, referring to Onni. But Rose “made it clear” that failure to follow stay-at-home orders “would result in an unsafe space for employees. Defendants did not appreciate this, and these complaints were a substantial motivating reason for plaintiff’s termination.”

According to the lawsuit, Rose’s wife is diabetic. By making him work in the office, Onni was denying him a “reasonable accommodation to continue working from home in order to keep his wife safe from possible exposure to Covid-19,” the suit said.

An attorney for Onni said the company “vehemently denies Joe Rose’s allegations, which it believes are entirely without merit. Onni will vigorously defend itself against Mr. Rose’s lawsuit,” said the attorney, Grant Alexander, a partner at Allen Matkins.

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Alexander declined to say what Onni’s policy was on requiring workers to show up at the office.

Requiring employees to work from the office is probably a violation of L.A. County law, said Kelly Scott, a lawyer at Ervin Cohen & Jessup.

“The state has delegated the issue to the county. And the county says you’re supposed to allow people to work from home when possible and practical,” Scott said.

Scott, who is not involved in the case, said that the county has done little to enforce the law. Instead, workers —and employers — are at the whims of which stay-at-home order the county enforces.

“Right now the county’s enforcement is focused on businesses opened in violation of pandemic orders, or businesses not requiring people to wear masks,” Scott added.

Rose’s lawsuit comes as Onni continues to expand its L.A. presence, while facing obstacles on the way.

A lawsuit filed last month accuses the developer of trying to steal federal Paycheck Protection Program funds that were provided to a tenant, a claim Onni has denied. Also, the company defaulted on a $400 million loan for the Wilshire Courtyard office complex in the Miracle Mile area.

Onni’s portfolio also includes the former Los Angeles Times building in downtown, which it is redeveloping, and a planned 14-story Hollywood office complex.