Jury Awards Whistleblower $4.5M in Retaliation Case
On October 9, 2020, a Missouri jury awarded Rosemary Salerno approximately $4.5 million in her whistleblower retaliation claim against MPI Management brought under the Missouri Whistleblower Protection Act. Approximately $4M of the verdict was punitive damages, which the jury may have been motivated to award due to the company filing a retaliatory lawsuit against the whistleblower.
Congratulations to Salerno’s counsel, Athena Dickson at Siro Smith Dickson. The $4.5M judgment does not include the whistleblower’s attorney fees and costs, which will be substantial (the court will rule on a petition for attorney fees).
While working as the General Manager of the Zona Rosa shopping center, a mixed-use, outdoor shopping center located in Kansas City, Missouri, Salerno refused to carry out an order from management to use approximately $500,000 in charitable donations to the Change for Charity Program to pay for the company’s operating expenses. Ms. Salerno also reported to her employer that using charitable donations to pay for expenses that were not related to the operation of the Change for Charity Program is unlawful. The jury concluded that MPI terminated Ms. Salerno’s employment in retaliation for her whistleblowing. In particular, the jury instructions required Ms. Salerno to demonstrate that her protected activity “actually played a role in and had a determinative influence on her discharge.”
Following the termination of Ms. Salerno’s employment, MPI learned that she had approved the purchase of a plasma cutter and an air compressor with company funds. The company suspected that Ms. Salerno used these devices for her personal benefit. On that basis, MPI appealed the Missouri Division of Employment Security’s decision to grant Ms. Salerno unemployment benefits and filed a lawsuit against her to recover the cost of the plasma cutter and air compressor. MPI’s lawsuit against Ms. Salerno went to trial, and the judge granted a directed verdict in Ms. Salerno’s favor. While this is a guess, the optics of a large company prosecuting a retaliatory lawsuit against a whistleblower probably did not create a favorable impression of the company with the jury.