Fortress Executive With Lou Gehrig Disease Sues Over Firing

  • Michael Johnson has a hearing set for July 12 in London
  • ‘It’s just not working out,’ Johnson’s boss said before firing

Fortress Investment Group LLC was sued by a managing director who said he was fired days after undergoing treatment for a degenerative disease and told "it’s just not working out."

Michael Johnson, a former managing director in the asset manager’s credit team, was dismissed a year ago "without any warning," four working days after he returned to work following treatment for motor neurone disease, according to court documents obtained by Bloomberg. His physical abilities had been rapidly declining for about six months before that, since he had noticed weakness in his leg at the end of 2014.

“There was plainly no proper reason for the dismissal,” Johnson’s lawyer said in the complaint. “Mr. Johnson’s dismissal constituted less favorable treatment because of his disability.”

Fortress, a New York-listed alternative-asset manager with $70.6 billion under management, is the latest financial institution taken to the London employment tribunals. The specialist courts have been the venue in recent months for disputes filed by about at least a dozen currency-exchange traders fired amid a benchmark manipulation scandal.

“We don’t comment on the specifics of ‎matters currently pending before the courts,” said Gordon Runte, a managing director at Fortress.

July 12 Hearing

Johnson, who is 56 according to court documents, declined to comment. He has a hearing at a London employment tribunal scheduled for July 12.

Johnson, who received a bonus of $585,330 in February 2015, was absent from work on more than 20 occasions during the first half of that year as doctors attempted to understand his condition. By the time of his diagnosis in early July, he was able to walk just 50 meters without stopping and was unable to climb stairs, according to the lawsuit.

Motor neurone disease is a progressive disorder that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Patients in later stages may become paralyzed. In the U.S., it is also known as Lou Gehrig disease, referring to a baseball player whose death in 1941 brought the disease to wider attention.

‘Downsizing’

During a five-minute meeting on July 30, Johnson’s boss, Fortress European head of credit Christopher Linkas, said he would be dismissed because the firm was "downsizing" and "it’s just not working out," according to the complaint. Johnson received no more written communication from Fortress regarding his dismissal until his formal notice of termination on Sept. 12.

Linkas didn’t respond to a message left at his office in London.

While the company had not been formally notified of the diagnosis at the time of the meeting with Linkas, Johnson’s lawyers said in the lawsuit the scope of the illness should have been obvious.

"Any contention that Fortress, Mr. Linkas and any of his other colleagues in the London office were unaware of his disability would have no reasonable prospect of success," Johnson’s lawyers said in the court documents.

Johnson was a leveraged finance specialist who previously worked at Credit Suisse Group AG.

Compensation at London’s employment tribunals is capped at about 80,000 pounds ($105,000) unless claimants can prove they were victims of discrimination, or were fired for whistle-blowing.

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