In yet another sign that whistleblower claims in the healthcare industry are on the rise, a New Jersey jury awarded over $2 million to a medical lab technician who claimed he was terminated following a whistleblower complaint. The case, Doculan v. Bayonne Medical Center (No. HUD-L-6670-10), involved claims under the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA), a state whistleblower law with several health-specific components that generally bars employers from taking retaliatory action against an employee who makes a good-faith complaint regarding illegal employer conduct.
According to the complaint, the plaintiff was a hematology technician at a medical center who alleged that he had been terminated after complaining to upper management and human resources about improper blood bank staffing and management procedures. The plaintiff also complained about his supervisor’s alleged insufficient credentials to supervise the blood bank. The plaintiff further alleged the lab was not properly covered with appropriately skilled employees during all shifts, and that these practices were illegal under New Jersey law.
Following his complaints, the plaintiff claimed that despite having an “essentially unblemished” record over his 20-year employment with the medical center, he was “repeatedly disciplined, counseled, written up and otherwise dishonestly micromanaged” by his supervisor (about whom he had complained to upper management) before being terminated approximately two months after he first made a complaint. One of the theories the plaintiff advanced was that upper management could have merely been a “cat’s paw”, relying on information from a supervisor with a retaliatory motive.
After a six-day trial in the Superior Court of New Jersey, on May 7, 2013, a unanimous eight-member jury awarded the plaintiff $80,640 in lost wages, $60,000 for pain and suffering, and $2 million in punitive damages.
As this case amply demonstrates, whistleblower complaints – which are on the rise across the board – can lead to significant exposure and large verdicts. The case also highlights the importance of conducting careful and thorough investigations, particularly if the decision maker is not directly involved with the employee, and is relying primarily on information from the employee’s supervisor. These situations are ripe for “cat’s paw” theories of liability, where the innocent decision maker is allegedly influenced by a supervisor with a retaliatory motive.