Written by Deborah Elkins | A former employee who claimed she was fired after requesting medical leave for psychological distress has won double damages under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.
U.S. District Judge Glen E. Conrad also awarded attorney’s fees and costs of nearly $210,000 in the aftermath of a July 7 award by a Roanoke federal jury. Conrad approved a lawyer’s billing rate of $325 to calculate the fee award inLaMonaca v. Tread Corp. (VLW 016-3-021).
Headquartered in Botetourt County, Tread manufactures explosives handling equipment. The plaintiff in the case, Valarie LaMonaca, was the company’s human resources director.
Under pressure both at home and at work, LaMonaca was distraught following a tense meeting with the firm’s CEO in April 2014, according to the judge’s summary of the facts.
The CEO contended she resigned during the Friday meeting, but LaMonaca maintained she said only that she was considering resigning.
A flurry of text messages and emails ensued over the following weekend. LaMonaca requested medical leave Sunday afternoon. After a Monday doctor’s appointment, LaMonaca received an email from the CEO saying her employment had ended the previous Friday.
After the jury verdict, the lawyers stipulated to a back pay award of $54,468.89 and submitted the issues of liquidated damages and attorneys’ fees to Conrad.
Tread asked the judge to toss the jury’s verdict and to either enter judgment for the company or order a new trial. Conrad denied both requests.
Tread’s defense relied heavily on its contention that Lamonaca quit at the Friday meeting. The jury decided in favor of LaMonaca, however, and Conrad said there was enough evidence to support that finding.
“While the court may have given more weight to [the CEO’s] testimony if it had been the finder of fact, the court cannot say that the evidence was so overwhelming that no reasonable jury could have found against Tread on the issue of whether LaMonaca voluntarily resigned before she requested FMLA leave,” Conrad wrote.
LaMonaca’s claims survived even though she had not yet received medical treatment when she requested leave and did not indicate how long the requested absence would be, Conrad said.
The lack of a doctor’s note also was not fatal to the claim, the judge said. The jury could have found sufficient information in LaMonaca’s emails to trigger further inquiry by the company, he said.
A doctor’s testimony about LaMonaca’s condition and his recommendation for a 30-day medical leave were sufficient to show she was unable to work for the statutory standard of more than three consecutive days, Conrad said.
The judge discounted evidence that LaMonaca applied for other jobs during her medical leave period.
Conrad rejected Tread’s effort to set aside the jury’s finding on retaliation.
“A reasonable jury could have found that LaMonaca engaged in protected activity when she requested FMLA leave; that Tread subsequently terminated her employment; and that Tread took the adverse employment action because of LaMonaca’s protected activity,” Conrad wrote.
Conrad refused to order a new trial.
“While this court may have decided the issues differently if it had been the designated finder of fact, the court is unable to conclude that the jury’s finding with respect to either issue was against the clear weight of the evidence or based on evidence that was false,” Conrad said.
Under the FMLA, LaMonaca was entitled to double her damages award – a bonus termed “liquidated damages” – unless the employer could show it acted in good faith and had reasonable grounds for believing it followed the law.
“Based on the jury’s verdict, the court is unable to find that Tread acted in good faith when it violated the FMLA,” Conrad said. His ruling means an extra $54,468.89 for LaMonaca.
LaMonaca’s attorney, Paul G. Beers of Roanoke, submitted a $259,542 legal bill for his work on the case. He based the request on an hourly rate of $350.
Conrad cut the rate to $325 after reviewing the parties’ submissions and fee awards in similar cases.
Conrad also trimmed the fee request by eliminating vague time descriptions intended to cure instances of block billing. The cuts came for entries such as “research,” “document review,” “work on discovery” and “trial preparation.”
Conrad reduced Beers’ hours by 15 percent and an associate’s hours by 20 percent for a 13-month period. The approved fee award was $199,352.76. Costs were calculated at $10,188.69.
Conrad expressly overruled Tread’s objection to costs for computerized legal research.
Conrad’s ruling came Jan. 21. No immediate response was filed by Tread’s attorneys.