A federal judge has awarded legal fees to a hospital as the prevailing party in an ex-employee’s whistleblower claim after the plaintiff could not name any laws or regulations broken by the defendant.
Capital Health Systems is entitled to fees for defending lab technician Janice Marrin’s claims under the Conscientious Employee Protection Act because her claims about lax procedures at the defendant’s microbiology lab are without basis in law or fact, U.S. District Judge Freda Wolfson ruled Thursday. Wolfson said the plaintiff had failed to advance any argument to support her CEPA claims. Wolfson said lack of support distinguished Marrin’s CEPA claim from a situation where claims were merely not viable.
Capital Health sought reimbursement for efforts to oppose Marrin’s whistleblower claim for more than three years, from the first filing of the complaint in March 2014, but Wolfson granted the defendant fees from after the close of discovery in September 2016 until the plaintiff withdrew the CEPA claim in November 2016.
Marrin first worked in the defendant’s hospital in Trenton and later was transferred to its hospital in Hopewell. Her suit claimed she was terminated for complaining to supervisors about improper procedures in the lab. She met with Capital Health’s director of human resources in February 2013 to discuss her concerns about her co-workers’ deficient procedures. In April 2013 she was terminated for failure to cooperate with an internal investigation into how she obtained emails between her supervisors and the human resources department that discussed her but were not addressed to her.
Besides the CEPA claim, Marrin’s suit brought claims under the state Law Against Discrimination and the Family and Medical Leave Act. Wolfson dismissed the remainder of the claims this May.
Capital Health sought fees for the entire duration of the litigation because it claimed Marrin admitted during the August 2015 deposition that she lacked a basis for her CEPA claim when she filed the suit, but Wolfson called that assertion “highly speculative.”
“Plaintiff was entitled at the pleading stage to maintain both her CEPA and NJLAD retaliation claims, and defendants chose to wait until after the close of discovery to move on all of plaintiff’s claims, rather than moving on the CEPA claim as soon as Defendants contend it became apparent that the claim lacked merit. This Court, considering the foregoing and looking to the parameters of CEPA’s safe harbor provision … finds that an appropriate threshold for the imposition of fees and costs in this case was the close of discovery,” Wolfson said.
Fair Lawn attorney Michael Harwin, who represented Marrin, could not be reached. A telephone number listed for his law office was not in service, and he did not respond to a reporter’s email message.
The lawyer for Capital Health, Kelly Bunting of Greenberg Traurig in Philadelphia, said she and her client were both “thrilled” with the decision, given the difficulty of winning motions for fees. Bunting said she had yet to calculate how much she will seek on the CEPA issue, adding that her motions for legal fees under the LAD and for a bill of costs are still pending. Bunting said she had no disagreement with the court’s limits on the scope of her CEPA fee award, which was based on a finding that some time spent on that motion could also apply to the plaintiff’s LAD claim.
“We’re happy to get whatever the court deems to grant. I understand the court’s reasoning,” Bunting said.