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Eighth Circuit Holds Planned RIF Does Not Bar Reinstatement of Fired Whistleblower

On December 17, 2014, the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed a lower court ruling ordering Bayer Corporation to reinstate a former pharmaceuticals sales representative, Mike Townsend, wrongfully terminated by Bayer in violation of the anti-retaliation provisions of the False Claims Act (FCA), 31 U.S.C. § 3730(h). Bayer had opposed the court-ordered relief, arguing that reinstating Townsend constituted an abuse of discretion by the lower court because Bayer had planned to eliminate Townsend’s position in a reorganization and the FCA did not permit reinstatement in those circumstances.

In April 2009, Townsend disclosed to his manager that a Bayer customer, Dr. Kelly Shrum, was committing Medicare fraud by buying a cheaper Canadian version of a contraceptive device and submitting reimbursement claims for the more expensive FDA-approved contraceptive. Townsend eventually reported Shrum to the Arkansas attorney general.

On May 5, 2010, Bayer fired Townsend, claiming he couldn’t do his job because his credit card had been deactivated. At trial, Bayer argued that the deactivated card prevented Townsend from entertaining physicians. The jury rejected Bayer’s stated reason for terminating Townsend as pretextual and found Bayer fired Townsend in retaliation for reporting Shrum’s Medicare fraud.

Judge James M. Moody of the District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas ordered Bayer to reinstate Townsend. The Eighth Circuit affirmed reinstatement as an appropriate remedy for the retaliatory firing, given that Townsend had no performance issues, enjoyed working at Bayer, and there was no evidence that Townsend’s coworkers would harass him upon his return. The Court rejected Bayer’s planned reduction in force as an affirmative defense to bar Townsend’s reinstatement. The Court held that Bayer did not have to reinstate Townsend to the exact same position, but, at a minimum, had to put him in a position with “the same seniority status” he would have had but for Bayer’s unlawful conduct.

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