A federal judge has doubled a jury's verdict in a Family and Medical Leave Act case after finding that an in-house lawyer's failure to research whether a pregnant worker was covered by the FMLA was evidence of the company's lack of good faith.
In Brown v. Nutrition Management Services Co., a jury awarded plaintiff Melissa Brown $74,000 in back pay.
Now Senior U.S. District Judge Norma L. Shapiro has added more than $6,600 in interest to the verdict and then doubled that figure, for a total judgment of $161,311. In a second opinion, Shapiro awarded more than $145,000 in fees to attorney Eliot B. Platt.
Shapiro found that under the FMLA, courts must award liquidated damages -- effectively doubling the jury's verdict -- unless the defendant can show it acted in good faith.
But in Nutrition Management's case, Shapiro said, there was no evidence of good faith because the company never researched the question of whether the plaintiff was covered under the law.
Shapiro found that Scott Murray, a lawyer who worked as Nutrition Management's director of human resources, testified at trial that he had determined it was "OK" to terminate Brown because she was a "brand new employee."
The jury rejected that conclusion, finding instead that Nutrition Management was a "successor employer" under the FMLA and that Brown was a covered employee under the law because she had worked for more than a year in the same post before being hired by Nutrition Management to remain in the same position.
"Nutrition Management's reliance on Mr. Murray's cursory determination was inadequate to ascertain whether Brown's prior employer was covered by the FMLA and, if so, whether Nutrition Management was a successor in interest," Shapiro wrote.
YOU GOTTA HAVE (GOOD) FAITH
Shapiro found there was no evidence of good faith because "Nutrition Management presented no evidence that it researched or had an attorney research the requirements of the FMLA, or was otherwise aware of the factors governing whether the FMLA would apply to Brown's request for leave."
Because Nutrition Management made "no legal inquiry into the requirements of the FMLA," Shapiro said, it had "no reasonable ground to believe Brown's termination was not a violation."
According to court papers, Brown was hired in November 2002 as the food service director of Plymouth House, a nursing home in Plymouth Meeting, Pa.
In August 2004, New Courtland, the owner of Plymouth House, contracted with Nutrition Management to manage certain aspects of the food service. Nutrition Management hired Brown, who continued to serve as food service director at Plymouth House.
Less than three months later, Brown claimed she was fired after informing Nutrition Management that she was pregnant.
In the first trial of the case, a jury found that Nutrition Management violated the FMLA, but rejected Brown's claim of pregnancy discrimination under Title VII.
But the jury's award of $275,000 was legally vexing because it included compensatory and punitive damages that are unavailable under the FMLA and zero dollars for the two categories of damages that are available: back pay and front pay.
Shapiro entered judgment of $1 in Brown's favor, but soon after granted a new trial sua sponte after concluding that the jury verdict form was confusing.
Now a second jury has reached a similar verdict, again rejecting Brown's Title VII claim, but finding that Nutrition Management violated the FMLA by interfering with Brown's rights.
The jury awarded Brown $74,000 in back pay, but zero dollars on her bid for front pay.
In her fee award, Shapiro found that Platt had logged more than 453 hours on the case at a rate of $400 per hour for a total lodestar of more than $181,000.
But Shapiro concluded that Platt's fees should be reduced by 20 percent -- to $145,000 -- because the jury had rejected some of Brown's claims.
Nutrition Management's lawyer, Alan B. Epstein of Spector Gadon & Rosen, declined to comment on the ruling except to say that he intends to file post-judgment motions and, if necessary, an appeal to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.