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A plaintiff filing a whistleblower case under state law is entitled to a jury trial in federal court — but not for punitive damages, a federal judge has ruled. In Romano v. Bucks County Water & Sewer Authority, U.S. District Judge Mary A. McLaughlin found last week that Diane Romano, who was fired from her job as a customer relations manager, is entitled to a jury trial on the claims she brought under the state whistleblower law against a former employer and two superiors. McLaughlin did not file an opinion on the issue, which appears to be one of first impression, but said that one would be filed at a later date. The remainder of her opinion focused on the punitive damages question. Romano’s attorney, Jordan B. Yeager of Boockvar & Yeager in Doylestown, said McLaughlin had requested briefs from the parties twice. The second was to address the jury trial issue and the federal law controlling it. In that brief, Yeager had argued against the defendants’ motion to strike his client’s demand for a jury trial, contending that his client has a right to a jury trial under the Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That amendment states in part that for suits at common law, “the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury shall be otherwise re-examined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.” The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted “suits at common law” to mean suits in which legal rights are at stake, Yeager said in the brief. Applying that standard to Romano’s case, Yeager argued in his brief that wrongful discharge claims have a basis in common law. Second, Romano seeks a “quintessentially ‘legal’ remedy” in her demand for compensatory damages, as recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court, Yeager wrote. Barbara O’Connell of Sweeney & Sheehan represented the defendants, Bucks County Water Authority and two officers Romano named in her complaint. O’Connell did not return calls for comment Wednesday. Turning to state law, Yeager noted that while the Pennsylvania whistleblower statute does not expressly provide for a right to a jury trial, claims for wrongful discharge are based in the common law. Romano had worked for the water and sewage authority for nine years. After she was fired in January 2003, she filed suit against the authority, her supervisor and the director of the authority, according to the complaint. She alleged that the authority targeted her for retribution because she criticized a supervisor’s practices and the authority’s policies. She brought claims under the federal civil rights statute, the state whistleblower law and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. Romano demands backpay, $150,000 in compensatory damages, and punitive damages, according to the complaint. Last year, the defendants filed a motion to strike Romano’s jury trial demand and her demand for punitive damages under the whistleblower law, according to McLaughlin’s March 24 opinion. (The demand for punitives on the civil rights claims against the two officers was not challenged.) Romano cannot recover punitive damages under the state whistleblower law, McLaughlin ruled, because the statute doesn’t identify such damages in its list of available remedies. McLaughlin also quoted dicta in a 2001 Pennsylvania Supreme Court case, O’Rourke v. Commonwealth, in which the justices said that “recovery under the statute is proportionate to the harm suffered, as punitive damages are not available.”

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