Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Court of Appeals affirms $1.37 million verdict for Connecticut whistleblower

The Court of Appeals has upheld a $1.37 million verdict in favor of a Pfizer employee who was fired after speaking out on health and safety issues in the workplace. This case tells us that the employment laws in Connecticut are much more favorable to employees than in New York.

The case is McClain v. Pfizer, Inc., a summary order decided on December 13. Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor heard this appeal along with Second Circuit Judges Dennis Jacobs and John Walker.

If you handle employment cases in New York, you know that, for plaintiffs, the private-employee whistleblower law creates hurdles as large as Mount Everest. Not so in Connecticut, where employees are free to speak out on matters of public concern, just as public employees may do so under the First Amendment. Connecticut law says that the rights of private employees are identical to public employees in this regard. The Connecticut Supreme Court said in 1999 that this remedial statute "deserves a generous construction that implements its purpose at one of the important places, the private workplace, in which those rights may be impaired." I can say with confidence that language like this is nowhere to be found in any court ruling interpreting the New York private employee whistleblower law.

According to the district court ruling, McClain was fired after complaining about health and safety problems. The district court wrote in denying Pfizer's Rule 50 motion:

McClain, who worked as a molecular biologist at Pfizer, complained about an odor in her laboratory and the placement of desks near laboratory benches where experiments were performed. Pfizer argues that [Connecticut law] does not protect those complaints because they were personal matters and did not relate to public health and safety. Although McClain clearly had a personal interest in eliminating the odor and keeping a safe distance between her desk and laboratory bench, “safety in the workplace is a matter of public concern.” Munafo v. Metropolitan Transp. Auth., 285 F.3d 201, 212 (2d Cir. 2002). Pfizer has not cited any law requiring McClain to be a completely disinterested party when speaking about workplace safety. Therefore, the jury reasonably could find that McClain’s complaints addressed a matter of public concern.
The Court of Appeals also affirms the punitive damages award in the amount of $468.843.80. As for the remaining damages, for pain and suffering, the jury gave plaintiff $685.000 for pain and suffering. (The jury awarded her the same amount of money for lost wages and other economic damages). Pfizer said the pain and suffering evidence was vague and conclusory. Although defendant did not appear to challenge this award on appeal, it's worth noting what the the district court said in rejecting Pfizer's post-trial argument that the jury awarded her too much money:

McClain argues that her testimony showed that she lost sleep and felt sad, stressed, and frustrated about Pfizer’s lack of responsiveness to her complaints. McClain felt stressed about contracting an illness potentially from exposure to biological materials at Pfizer. She feared her supervisor, who had raised his voice and used profanity when speaking to her. Finally, she had to endure a significant period of unemployment following her termination. Considering the jury’s critical benefit of hearing McClain’s live testimony, the Court cannot determine as a matter of law that manifest injustice was done. Pfizer has failed to cite any law requiring the Court to disturb the jury’s award of noneconomic damages.

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