WASHINGTON (June 4, 2013) — A Maryland appeals court has reinstated a jury’s 2011 award of $650,000 to Donna Jackson, a plaintiff represented by The Employment Law Group® law firm, for her former employer’s retaliation after she reported a subordinate’s gender discrimination complaint.
In a 60-page opinion written by Judge Deborah S. Eyler, the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland confirmed every aspect of the jury’s verdict against Edgewood Management Corp. and said the trial court made several errors when it sliced Ms. Jackson’s award to just $89,195.
The appeals court also endorsed the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2011 formulation of “cat’s paw” liability, under which an employer may be held liable for retaliation against an employee even if the actual decision-maker was unaware of a retaliatory motive.
“In 2011, a jury showed Donna Jackson that Marylanders will stand up for employees who do the right thing,” said Nicholas Woodfield, principal at The Employment Law Group and lead attorney on Ms. Jackson’s case. “The trial court’s errors undercut that message, but we are glad that the Court of Special Appeals has clarified the law—and restored justice for Donna.”
For more than three decades, Ms. Jackson had strong reviews and a spotless record while working for Edgewood, a property management company based in Germantown, Md. From 1990 until 2010, she served as community manager at an apartment complex near her home in Glen Burnie, Md.
But shortly after Ms. Jackson reported a subordinate’s complaint against Arturo Reyes, Mr. Jackson’s immediate supervisor, the company disciplined her, cut her pay, and reassigned her to a less attractive job that required a long commute to two locations in opposite directions.
Edgewood’s internal e-mails revealed that company executives made these moves expecting that Ms. Jackson would quit as a result. And what they “expected to happen, did happen,” said the appeals court; Ms. Jackson resigned the day after her reassignment.
“I loved my job, and I really enjoyed working with the tenants and watching their children grow up,” she said. “But after I forwarded that complaint, my supervisor treated me like I had committed a crime. I kept thinking that management would fix it. But instead they took his side. ”
Scott Jones, president and chief executive officer at Edgewood, was the person who actually reassigned Ms. Jackson and cut her salary. Edgewood argued that he didn’t knowingly retaliate against Ms. Jackson, but the company still was held liable because Mr. Jones relied on malicious advice from Mr. Reyes.
The Supreme Court established this “cat’s paw” standard of liability in Staub v. Proctor Hospital, holding 8-0 that companies are responsible for actions that can be linked directly to a supervisor’s retaliatory intent. The 2011 doctrine now is percolating down to courts across the country including, as here, state courts applying state law.
Maryland judges are not bound to follow federal law when interpreting Maryland statutes, but they usually respect broad-reaching opinions such as Staub—particularly in cases of employment discrimination. Here the court incorporated the Staub standard into Maryland law, so that it will apply in future state actions.
“Maryland courts no longer allow employers to hide behind the technicality of who made a final decision,” said R. Scott Oswald, managing principal of The Employment Law Group. “Retaliation against a whistleblower like Donna Jackson is illegal, no matter how it is engineered.”
Ms. Jackson was grateful for the appeals court’s ruling. “I was crushed after the jury’s verdict was reduced,” she said. “Now it feels like I am waking up from a bad dream.”
The appeal was reported as Edgewood Management Corporation v. Donna Jackson, case number 76 for the 2012 term of the Court of Special Appeals in Annapolis, Md. It reinstated the original jury verdict reached in September 2011.