A Sacramento County judge has denied UC Davis’ motion to set aside a jury verdict in a case of whistleblower retaliation and have a new trial.
Back in August, a jury ruled in a 9-3 decision in favor of terminated UC Davis employee Janet Keyzer and awarded her $330,000 in lost earnings and $400,000 in noneconomic damages. UC Davis will also have to pay years’ worth of attorney fees for ultimately two attorneys.
Ms. Keyzer sued, alleging that she had been retaliated against and ultimately terminated because she complained to her supervisor and the UC Davis Institutional Review Board (“IRB”) that the COPE (Community Oriented Pain-management Exchange) project management did not comply with the IRB approval process before implementing human subject research activities on prisoners at San Quentin.
In their verdict form, the jury by a 9-3 vote determined that Ms. Keyzer proved that she suffered a termination of employment and that her protected disclosures regarding the COPE project were a contributing factor to the termination and other adverse employments actions.
Moreover, the Regents failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the termination would have occurred for legitimate and independent reasons even if Ms. Keyzer had not engaged in the protected disclosures.
Finally, the jury ruled that the conduct of the Regents was a substantial factor in causing harm to Ms. Keyzer.
But UC Davis argued it was entitled to a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) on the following grounds:
(1) The evidence at trial establishes the absence of retaliatory intent as a matter of law.
(2) There is no substantial evidence to support the verdict that the alleged actions would not have occurred for legitimate independent reasons.
(3) The verdict undercuts the public policy in favor of internal dispute resolution.
(4) The economic damages award lacks support because plaintiff’s refusal to accept the Analyst VII position bars economic damages.
According to the ruling, the plaintiff countered that the defendant “has set forth only its own evidence and has not addressed all of the material evidence presented.”
The plaintiff contends, according to the ruling, that “there was substantial evidence to support a finding of retaliation including a statement made by one University manager to another admitting that plaintiff had been singled out; the fact that plaintiff had been laid off despite available funds and a moratorium on lay-offs; emails between University management with instructions prohibiting email communication regarding plaintiff because emails are discoverable; and a ‘Victory’ email between University managers on the eve of plaintiff’s termination.
“Plaintiff also contends there were substantial contradictions in the testimony of defendant’s witnesses that would provide the jury with reason to doubt their credibility.”
The judge notes, “Defendant presents a one-sided view of the evidence and the motion for JNOV fails to address any evidence favorable to plaintiff. Plaintiff produced substantial evidence to support her claims of intentional retaliatory conduct because she was a whistleblower.”
He continued, “The jury found that plaintiff suffered an adverse action in retaliation for her protected complaints and awarded her damages after it was properly instructed on the relevant law. Therefore, reviewed in the light most favorable to plaintiff, the evidence is sufficient to support the verdict.”
The judge rules, “Defendant is not persuasive. The Court has weighed the evidence in light of the entire record. As plaintiff points out in her opposition, there was ample evidence to support the verdict. The evidence was sufficient to permit the jury to decide in plaintiff’s favor based on the law explained to them in the jury instructions.”
“Having exercised its independent judgment, the Court is not convinced that the jury clearly should have reached a different verdict. A new trial on this ground is not warranted,” the judge writes. “Similarly, the Court is not persuaded that the verdict was against law. There was substantial evidence to support the verdict. The verdict was not against law.”
Judge also ruled, “The motion on the ground of excessive damages is denied… The Court has independently reviewed all of the evidence presented. As contended by plaintiff, there was sufficient evidence in the record to support the jury’s award. Based on the entire record, including reasonable inferences, there was sufficient admissible evidence to support the jury’s damages award. A new trial is not warranted on this ground.”
For full story on the verdict, see “Jury Awards Janet Keyzer $730,000 From UCD in Whistleblower Retaliation Case.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting