Fortress Says Fired Executive Exaggerated Lou Gehrig Disease

  • Michael Johnson testifies in London employment tribunal case
  • Managers say they had no idea he had degenerative illness

A Fortress Investment Group LLC executive with motor neurone disease who said he could barely walk across the firm’s lobby when he was fired in 2015 was accused by the asset management company’s lawyers of exaggerating his condition in order to sue for unfair dismissal.

Michael Johnson, a former managing director on the credit team, says he was dismissed without warning when he returned to work following treatment, according to his lawsuit at a London employment tribunal.

Daniel Stilitz, a lawyer for Fortress, expressed sympathy on Wednesday for Johnson before saying the former executive had misrepresented his condition to strengthen his case. Johnson, a former British army officer who worked at BNP Paribas SA and Nomura Holdings Inc. before joining Fortress in 2014, argues that the firm fired him because of his illness. Damages in disability discrimination cases are potentially unlimited.

“Having sadly had your health decline as it has, you are now somewhat exaggerating how serious your symptoms were at the time you were employed by Fortress,” Stilitz said.

Johnson, testifying from a wheelchair with the assistance of a microphone, denied the claim.

“I can assure you that I couldn’t even walk 50 meters at that point. I could barely walk across the lobby,” the 56-year-old said.

Downsizing

Fortress, a New York-listed alternative-asset manager with $70.6 billion under management, fired Johnson in July 2015, and escorted him out of its London office after telling him the company was downsizing and that his job wasn’t working out, according to Johnson’s written statement in the case.

Gordon Runte, a spokesman for Fortress, said the company didn’t comment on matters currently in court. The available documents didn’t set out how much Johnson is seeking in compensation and his spokeswoman Melanie Riley declined to comment.

Fortress executives “had no idea” Johnson was suffering from a serious degenerative disease when they decided to fire him, the company said in documents setting out its defense. His dismissal was for “business reasons,” including his poor performance.

The cross examination of Johnson on Wednesday morning centered on how much Fortress managers knew about his condition, and whether his illness at the time was as serious as he alleges in the suit. A human resources employee told Johnson on the day of his firing that the company was unaware he had been diagnosed with motor neurone disease, which is known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in the U.S.

Symptoms

Johnson argued that his former colleagues must have noticed his limp and hospital appointments. Stilitz questioned him about how far he could walk at specific moments, and referred to an application, written by his doctor in June 2015, for a disabled parking pass. Johnson admitted the letter cast his physical decline in the worst possible light in order to ensure the request for a pass was successful.

Motor neurone disease affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord and may result in paralysis. In the U.S., it is also known as Lou Gehrig disease, after a baseball player whose death in 1941 brought the disease to wider attention.

Johnson said his movement declined rapidly after he noticed a weakness in his leg at the end of 2014. Johnson “consistently played down the significance and seriousness of his limp,” Fortress said in its defense.

Stilitz asked Johnson about his employment contract, which set out that a large portion of his pay would be linked to lending deals he was able to originate.

“What Fortress were interested in ultimately was really one thing: you sourcing transactions for them which led to profitable investments,” Stilitz said. In its court documents, Fortress said Johnson’s performance was “not impressive” and his bonus was not large compared to other senior staff.

Johnson said in his witness statement he had started the company’s leveraged finance business from nothing and that poor performance was never mentioned before or during his dismissal. He was paid $846,560 in 2014.

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