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Maryland’s High Court Finalizes Verdict In “Cat’s Paw” Case

September 24th, 2013 · No Comments

DISCLAIMER: THIS POST CONCERNS A CLIENT OF THE EMPLOYMENT LAW GROUP® LAW FIRM. THE RESULTS OF ALL CASES DEPEND ON A VARIETY OF FACTORS UNIQUE TO EACH CASE. PAST SUCCESSES DO NOT PREDICT OR GUARANTEE FUTURE SUCCESSES.

Maryland’s highest court finalized the reinstatement of a jury’s $650,000 award to Donna Jackson for her former employer’s retaliation after she reported a subordinate’s gender discrimination complaint.

By declining to review a lower court decision, the Maryland Court of Appeals also solidified the state’s adoption of “cat’s paw” liability, under which an employer may be held liable for retaliation against an employee even if the actual decision-maker was unaware of a retaliatory motive.

Ms. Jackson was represented by The Employment Law Group® law firm.

“By standing up for justice, Donna Jackson has helped to strengthen the law’s protection of employees all over Maryland,” said Nicholas Woodfield, principal at The Employment Law Group and lead attorney on Ms. Jackson’s case. “It was a long and difficult fight, but this victory is a fitting reward for her fortitude.”

After winning damages from her former employer in a 2011 jury trial, Ms. Jackson saw the judge slash her award to just $89,195. Earlier this year the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland said that judge had made several errors, and restored the original verdict in its entirety — a result that is now final.

Yesterday’s decision also gave authority to the lower court’s reliance on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2011 Staub v. Proctor Hospital opinion, which held companies responsible for actions that result from a supervisor’s retaliatory intent — even if the supervisor doesn’t take those actions directly.

Ms. Jackson was forced to resign from Edgewood Management Corp., where she worked for decades as community manager for an apartment complex, after being reassigned and given a pay cut by Scott Jones, the company’s president and chief executive officer.

Edgewood had argued that this wasn’t retaliation because Mr. Jones didn’t know that Ms. Jackson had reported discrimination by her supervisor, Arturo Reyes — but Ms. Jackson prevailed under the Staub standard, since Mr. Jones had relied on malicious advice from Mr. Reyes.

This cat’s-paw doctrine — named for the cat that is duped into burning its paw in the fable The Monkey and the Cat — has percolated down from Staub into courts across the country including, as here, state courts applying state law.

Maryland judges are not bound to follow federal law when interpreting Maryland statutes, but they usually respect broad-reaching opinions such as Staub, particularly in cases of employment discrimination. Ms. Jackson’s case brings the Staub standard firmly into Maryland law, where it will apply in future whistleblower cases.

“Retaliation is retaliation,” said R. Scott Oswald, managing principal of The Employment Law Group. “An employer is liable for its illegal actions against whistleblowers, no matter how cleverly they are engineered. Donna Jackson’s courage has helped to establish an important principle in Maryland law.”

Tags: Retaliation · The Employment Law Group, P.C.