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In hindsight, it would have been a lot cheaper if Pharmedica Communications LLC in Killingworth, Conn., just let Rene Palma work half-days for two weeks, especially now that U.S. Magistrate Holly B. Fitzsimmons has doubled a $140,000 jury verdict against the company for firing Palma after she explored her rights under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Following gall bladder surgery in 1999, Palma’s surgeon recommended that she go to half-days for two weeks. The doctor didn’t suspect it would cost her job. Palma had worked for eight years in the accounting department of 200-employee Pharmedica, a 14-year-old producer of videos for continuing medical education. Her supervisor, Sue Cipollone, referred the question of half-days to Pete Stefanski, a manager in the accounting department. He responded that half-days were no longer company policy. The year before, CEO Lawrence Timmerman had changed the employee manual to eliminate half-days. But Palma remembered hearing about the FMLA that U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn, had authored, and called the U.S. Department of Labor to check it out. She learned that half-days were, indeed, a possibility under the new law. But upon hearing that Palma had talked to the labor department, Cipollone and Stefanski acted less than pleased. After their own call to the labor department, Cipollone apologized profusely and allowed Palma to begin half-days. But those days were numbered. According to detailed rulings by Fitzsimmons, Palma made a solid case on circumstantial evidence, supporting the jury’s finding that her firing was an illegal retaliation for challenging the CEO’s authority. From the whispery world of workplace politics, Palma testified she overheard Timmerman say to Stefanski, “Get rid of her.” Palma had received favorable job reviews and steady raises. Before the month was over, however, she was fired in what the company said was a “reorganization.” Palma’s lawyer was Jeffrey S. Bagnell, of the New Haven employment law firm Garrison, Levin-Epstein, Chimes & Richardson. In cross-examination, Bagnell asked Timmerman, “You fired Rene Palma, didn’t you?” The CEO replied, “No, I did not.” Bagnell immediately grabbed Pharmedica’s answers from the underlying hearing before the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities. It listed Timmerman as the one who recommended Palma’s termination and made the final decision. In closing arguments, Bagnell said Pharmedica had three years to explain why it fired Palma, “and it’s reorganization. A one-person reorganization.” Pharmedica was represented by Glenn A. Duhl, of Hartford’s Siegel, O’Connor, Zangari, O’Donnell & Beck. The firm filed motions to set aside a 2002 jury verdict for $140,000 in lost pay, on grounds the evidence did not support it. With the parties’ agreement, Fitzsimmons ruled as a final order Sept. 30 on defense and plaintiff’s post-trial motions. Her orders are not a recommendation that requires approval by a U.S. District judge. In her ruling, Fitzsimmons quoted testimony of one Pharmedica employee recounting that Cipollone said Palma “should not have complained and should not have questioned Larry [Timmerman], because you just don’t question Larry.” Fitzsimmons denied Pharmedica’s move to reverse the verdict, instead ruling in favor of Palma’s request for an additional $140,000 as liquidated damages, under the FMLA’s doubling provision for liquidated damages. Fitzsimmons also rejected Pharmedica’s contention that it made a good-faith mistake and simply misunderstood the FMLA.

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