Date of Verdict: March 22.
Court and Case No.: C.P. Philadelphia No. 111003328.
Judge: Annette M. Rizzo.
Type of Action: Whistleblower.
Plaintiffs Counsel: Laura C. Mattiacci and Rahul Munshi, The Console Law Offices, Philadelphia.
Defense Counsel: Caren Litvin, Daly, Lamastra & Cunningham, Whitehouse Station, N.J.
Comment: A Philadelphia jury has returned a $1.7 million verdict — $1.5 million of which was a punitive damages award — in favor of a woman who claimed she was fired after reporting to company leaders that she believed her manager was engaged in drug activity and that he brought his daughter to a facility where convicted child predators were required to report.
The plaintiff’s legal team reported that the unanimous eight-person jury came back March 22 after a five-day trial with a damages award of $1.7 million against The Kintock Group, a nonprofit organization providing transition services to ex-convicts.
According to the verdict sheet, the jury awarded $77,988 in back pay, $100,000 for pain and suffering and the rest in punitive damages. The plaintiff, Marla Pietrowski, made about $44,000 a year. The case was tried in front of Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Annette M. Rizzo.
The case of Pietrowski v. The Kintock Group was filed in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas because Kintock’s headquarters is in Philadelphia, according to the plaintiff’s legal team.
Pietrowski claimed in a lawsuit filed in Philadelphia under New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act that Kintock violated CEPA by firing Pietrowski after she alerted management about the conduct of Yarilee Miranda, the interim director of the community resource center in Vineland, N.J., and Pietrowski’s supervisor.
According to court papers, Pietrowski claimed she was being “groomed” for the CRC Vineland director job when she started working for Kintock in July 2009. But this was before Pietrowski told management about a comment Miranda made that she recognized as a drug reference, and later about Miranda bringing his 6-year-old daughter to a facility where convicted child predators reported — a violation of company policy, according to Pietrowski.
After she complained, things changed, the lawsuit claimed, culminating with her firing in June 2011.
According to the plaintiff’s pretrial memorandum, the alleged drug-related comment came in October 2009. Miranda allegedly said he needed his “extremely long, well-manicured pinky fingernail” for “‘bagging,’” according to the memo, which Pietrowski thought meant the bagging of cocaine.
According to the memo, Miranda further said: “‘I don’t use it; I bag it.’”
Pietrowski reported the comment to Pierre Francis, identified in court papers as a “site administrator.” But afterward, according to the plaintiff’s memo, Miranda caught wind of Pietrowski’s conversation with Francis and became “increasingly hostile” toward her and told her he was starting to look at her differently.
Then, in December 2009, the plaintiff claimed Miranda brought his daughter to work over what Pietrowski claimed were the orders of Kintock management, the parole office and even Miranda not to do so.
Afterward, Francis told Miranda not to bring his child to the facility.
Come the start of 2010, Pietrowski wrote to Mildred Davis, the former director of human resources at Kintock, claiming Miranda was retaliating against her, exhibiting hostile behavior toward her and engaging in “professional sabotage.”
In the letter, the pretrial memo alleged, the plaintiff informed the manager that Miranda told her he was “‘beginning to look at [her] differently’” and made comments that Pietrowski considered a direct threat to her ability to advance in the company, namely that Miranda would no longer support her for the position of director of the Vineland facility.
In the fall of 2010, another worker — Erinn Hendricks — was selected as the director of CRC Vineland.
Within a year, Pietrowski had been fired. When Kintock fired Pietrowski, the organization did not make its reasoning for doing so precisely clear, according to the pleadings. Court papers point to a June 9, 2011, termination letter Pietrowski received stating she was fired for “‘gross misconduct (false allegations).’”
The plaintiff said the letter “‘blindsided’” her.
The defense, on the other hand, appeared to peg Pietrowski’s firing to complaints she had raised that Hendricks, the new Vineland director and her boss, was having an “‘inappropriate relationship’” with a subordinate employee, according to Kintock’s pretrial memorandum.
Pietrowski, according to the defense papers, claimed there were two employees of the Vineland facility who witnessed interactions between Hendricks and the employee, which included hugging and the male subordinate “seductively” rubbing his tie in Hendricks’ face.
Kintock launched an internal investigation into the allegations and concluded the allegations were unfounded after interviewing the workers whom Pietrowski said witnessed the inappropriate contact.
By May 2011, Pietrowski had put her complaints in writing to her employer in the form of a 16-page document referenced in court papers as a “‘Whistleblowing and Hostile Work Environment’” memorandum.
The plaintiff noted that the memo from Pietrowski to her employer included the alleged drug activity and Miranda bringing his daughter to work.
Defense papers acknowledged that Pietrowski referenced Miranda’s alleged drug activity from 2009 and “other complaints she raised during her employment,” but highlighted Pietrowski’s accusations that Hendricks, Pietrowski’s boss at the time, was having an inappropriate relationship with her subordinate.
Laura C. Mattiacci, one of Pietrowski’s lawyers, said CEPA allows for recovery if the jury could find the plaintiff’s objection to Miranda’s alleged drug comment and bringing his daughter to work played a role in the company’s decision to terminate her.
Under the law, those objections didn’t have to be the sole cause, Mattiacci said, which became important in a case where the defense played up the plaintiff’s accusations about her boss and a subordinate having an inappropriate relationship.
Mattiacci added that testimony from Kintock’s chief operating officer, Kimberly Follett, became detrimental to the defense.
Before the company fired Pietrowski, according to her pretrial memo, Follett sent Kintock’s director of security an email saying she wanted to move on termination based on the “latest allegations” from Pietrowski, referring to the whistleblower and hostile work environment memo.
Mattiacci said she got Follett to admit on the stand that she was referring to Pietrowski’s allegations about Miranda’s drug activity.
The defense “spent the rest of the trial trying to run away from that,” Mattiacci said.
The fact that Pietrowski’s termination came from upper management resonated with the jury, her attorney added, saying she was not surprised by the punitive damages award.
“I think that given the fact that this was a termination executed by those at the highest level of the company and their complete disregard for [Pietrowski's] rights under the whistleblower laws, the punitive damages award was appropriate,” she said.
Mattiacci and Rahul Munshi represented the plaintiff.
According to Kintock’s pretrial statement, the organization had offered $35,000 to settle the case.
Caren Litvin, who represented Kintock, declined to comment.