Jottings By An Employer's Lawyer

Monday, August 18, 2008

Washington State Attorney Gets MDV

Not in her role as attorney, but in her role as terminated prosecutor. Barbara Corey, former prosecutor for Pierce County (Tacoma, Washington) was third in command in the prosecutor's office when she was fired in 2004. The firing occurred after she initiated the transfer of another employee, an act which according to the defense, angered other employees. A part of her claim related to post-termination publicity about her firing, with Corey claiming that she had been defamed. According to the story in The News Tribune, County hit with big jury award, the jury award was just over $3 million:

• $1.5 million for the damage to her reputation
• $750,000 for non-economic damages
• $700,176 for economic damages related to the defamation and false light claims
• $124,994 for loss of wages because of her wrongful termination

Although. as always it's dangerous to read too much from a short story, a couple of danger points stick out:

  • in closing arguments both sides were accusing the other of being liars, with the County arguing that she told a "bundle of lies" before her termination. If the jury doesn't buy that argument, then it sometimes heaps fuel on the fire of their indignation.
  • the County argued it was also within its rights to fire her because she was an "at will employee." While that statement is no doubt true, it rarely works as a good jury argument. Right or wrong, the reality in an employment law trial is that the the burden is on the employer to justify their action. Rare is the employment law case that will be won by the defense if the jury believes that the employer did not have a good reason for taking the action that it did. Legally, the employee is at will, and before and after the jury verdict that is a very important point, but in front of a jury, it's rarely a winner.

The headline before the case went to the jury, After venom on both sides, jury gets Barbara Corey suit, was probably an indicator that this was a case that by the point had reached a stage where any loss was probably going to be a big one.

Adam Lynn, a reporter for the The News Tribune had a series of stories and blog posts before and during the trial that provide some more information:

Pierce County defense strikes back against claims of favoritism (8/7)

No conspiracy, top Pierce County prosecutor testifies about manager’s firing (7/30)

Case against Pierce County ratchets up

Suit Against County Prosecutor Begins With Dueling Versions of the Truth (7/25)

Jury to determine who's lying: Pierce County or former prosecutor? (7/24)

Former deputy prosecutor's lawsuit against Pierce County set to begin (7/20)


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