Jottings By An Employer's Lawyer

Saturday, August 27, 2005

It's Not Always Nice in San Diego - $6 Million Sexual Harassment Verdict


Hot weather, which we are having in abundance this week in Texas, always makes me think of locales with year round moderate (at least compared to Texas) weather. San Diego is right up there. But it probably didn't seem so nice to ACADIA Pharmaceuticals, Inc. and 2 of its top executives this week who were on the wrong end of a $6 million dollar sexual harassment/retaliation verdict in a state court lawsuit brought by scientist (and ex-employee) Audry Scully. There are almost no details about the trial itself in the San Diego Tribune newsite story, Scientist wins sexual harassment suit against Acadia.

As a publicly traded company, ACADIA was issued its own release which noted that one of the executives was charged with sexual harassment and the other with retaliation. A deadly combination (my comment, not the company's.) The damage was described this way:
In connection with the verdict, the jury awarded compensatory damages in the aggregate amount of $3.9 million and punitive damages in the aggregate amount of $2.2 million against ACADIA. The jury also awarded punitive damages against Dr. Davis and Dr. Brann. ACADIA maintains employment practices liability insurance in the amount of $3 million, which may be used to offset a portion of the compensatory damages as well as fees and expenses incurred in connection with this litigation.
And of course:
ACADIA, Dr. Davis and Dr. Brann strongly disagree with, and do not believe that the facts support the verdict rendered. These parties intend to contest the verdict vigorously through all available legal recourse through the trial court and the appellate courts.
And may do so very successfully; still at least for awhile San Diego must not have seemed quite so hospitable.

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On August 24th, a San Diego Superior Court jury concluded its deliberations on civil claims for sex harassment and retaliation brought by Audra Scully, a 35-year old UCSD Ph.D., against her San Diego biotech employer Acadia Pharmaceuticals, Inc., and two of its top executives, Chief Science Officer, President and company founder, Mark Brann, Ph.D. and Executive Vice President of Drug Discovery and Development, Robert Davis, Ph.D. Drs. Brann and Davis are long-time professional colleagues. Dr. Davis is primarily responsible for generating venture capital for Acadia’s on-going drug discovery operations.

The demographically and racially diverse jury of eight women and four men deliberated over three days following a two week trial before finding the company and the individual defendants liable on each of Dr. Scully’s claims. The jury determined that Dr. Davis had subjected Dr. Scully, over a period of months, to persistent unwanted sexual advances that he tied to his support of her advancement and increased “visibility” at the company. Dr. Scully reported her discomfort with Dr. Davis’ conduct, her fear of his retaliating against her for rejecting his advances, and the fact that he had engaged in similar conduct while serving as President of a prior biotech company to Acadia’s Human Resources Director on multiple occasions, but no investigation or inquiry was initiated.

Dr. Scully ultimately reported her concerns to her direct superior Dr. Brann, after which he promptly subjected her to adverse consequences that included his removing her from managing a valuable collaborative project, giving her a first-ever negative performance review, a paltry raise and bonus, and eventually firing her allegedly for not being able to get along with her peers. Prior to reporting Dr. Davis’ conduct, the defendants had promoted Dr. Scully and given her significant raises, bonuses and stock while repeatedly commending her as a “bright and shining star.” Despite diligent efforts to find another job after she was fired from her project manager position in June 2004, Dr. Scully was only able to land a significantly lesser-paying job in academia in June 2005.

The jury reasoned that Dr. Davis’ sexual advances compromised Dr. Scully and caused her $450,000 in compensatory damages. The jury also found clear and convincing evidence that Acadia consciously disregarded Dr. Scully’s civil right to be free of sex harassment in the work place by failing to take any of the steps provided under its own anti-harassment policy, awarding her an additional $450,000 in punitive damages against Acadia. The jury also awarded $600,000 in punitive damages against Dr. Davis personally, having found clear and convincing evidence that his treatment of Dr. Scully was malicious and/or oppressive particularly given the fact that he had been reprimanded in writing for similar conduct at his prior place of employment in the spring of 2000 but refused that directive to attend sex harassment training because he was “too busy.”

On the retaliation claim, the jury determined that Dr. Scully’s reporting Dr. Davis’ harassing conduct was a motivating reason for Dr. Brann’s decision to fire her under the pretext of an inability to get along with coworkers. For these acts, the jury separately awarded Dr. Scully $3.4 million in compensatory damages including past and reasonably anticipated future lost wages and benefits. To punish and deter such conduct in the future, the jury awarded Dr. Scully an additional $3.95 million in punitive damages against Acadia and Dr. Brann personally. The total award for compensatory and punitive damages amounted to $7.9 million.
 
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