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Three years ago, Betty Lou Dossert addressed a school board meeting in her Nebraska town of 300 residents. The act cost Dossert her job — and then cost her employer more than $1 million. Dossert, a bank employee in Loomis, Neb., questioned whether the proposed merger of two local school districts would have a negative impact on her community’s taxes. Days later, Dossert was dismissed from her job at First State Bank, allegedly because one of the school districts threatened to pull its business if she was not fired. Dossert sued the bank, claiming that her right to free speech had been violated. A federal jury in Lincoln, Neb., recently agreed, awarding her $1.56 million. Dossert v. First State Bank, No. 4:01 CV 565 and Dossert v. Lauritzen Corp., No. 7:02 CV 3069. RETRIAL POSSIBLE Most of the award, about $1 million, was for emotional distress and the remainder for lost wages. The judge did not find enough evidence of “callous indifference” by the bank to allow the question of punitive damages to go to the jury, said one of Dossert’s lawyers, Maren Lynn Chaloupka of Chaloupka, Holyoke, Hofmeister, Snyder & Chaloupka in Scottsbluff, Neb. “This was the jury’s assessment of what it is worth to lose your First Amendment right and your professional identity,” said Chaloupka. Chaloupka argued the case with her father, Robert Chaloupka, and William Tringe Jr. of Holdrege, Neb. According to the plaintiff’s lawyers, U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf indicated he is considering removing the verdict and ordering a new trial on a motion by the court. The plaintiff’s team declined to comment on the judge’s post-trial actions. The bank was represented by Roger L. Shiffermiller of Omaha, Neb.’s Fraser Stryker Meusey Olson Boyer & Bloch. Shiffermiller did not return calls. Dossert first sued the bank in state court for wrongful termination, but the trial judge dismissed her action on summary judgment. The Nebraska Supreme Court later sent the case back for trial, finding that Dossert should have been allowed to amend her complaint to include a civil rights violation. The case was then removed to federal court in Lincoln on a motion by the defense. The defense argument at trial, said Robert Chaloupka, was that the bank was within its rights to fire Dossert because Nebraska is a “termination-at-will state,” which means an employer has full discretion to fire an employee — the only exception being the employee’s constitutional protections. Dossert, the defense alleged, had insulted the bank’s customers. The smoking gun in the trial was the termination letter the bank president had written to Dossert, Chaloupka said. The letter stated that Dossert was fired “as a result of comments … which were negative about the local school board and superintendent, thereby reflecting poorly on the community and placing at risk substantial customers of the bank.”

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