Federal laws protect whistleblowers from retaliation
because the government wants people to report fraud in government contracts.
When Weihua Huang, a principal investigator on a National Institutes of Health
(NIH) research grant at the University of Virginia, discovered unauthorized
changes that diverted grant money to unrelated salaries and expenses, he
reported it to the head of UVa's Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences. Soon
thereafter, he was told his employment contract wouldn't be renewed. Huang sued for False Claims Act retaliation and won a jury
verdict of $159,915 in lost wages plus $500,000 in compensatory
emotional-distress damages. Not surprisingly, the defendants (Huang's
supervisor Dr. Ming D. Li, and Department Chair Dr. Bankole A. Johnson) asked
the court to reduce the damages award as excessive.
Specifically, the defendants invoked a process known as remittitur, asking Judge Norman K. Moon to either reduce
distress damages to $10,000, or order a new trial. They pointed out that
the only evidence of emotional distress was Huang's own unsupported testimony.
There was no evidence, for example, of medical treatment or other corroborating
evidence. They argued that where the injury consists of emotional distress, the
Fourth Circuit usually finds six-figure damages awards excessive when not
supported by medical evidence.
A jury's compensatory damages award will be considered
excessive if it is "against the clear weight of the evidence or based on
evidence which is false." Under Rule 59(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil
Procedure, if a plaintiff won't accept a trial court's reduction of an
excessive jury award, the court can order a new trial.
The court agreed with the defendants, but only up to a point.
The court agreed that six-figure awards for emotional distress are often found
to be excessive, but noted that there is no bright line test prohibiting such
awards per se. The cases are very fact-specific. What is important is that the
damages award be proportional to the plaintiff's injury. In theory, emotional
distress damages can be proved solely through a plaintiff's self-serving
testimony, but conclusory statements are not enough. If a plaintiff is going to
rely solely on his own testimony, he must reasonably and sufficiently explain
the circumstances of his distress.
the rest of the article at the Virginia
Business Litigation Lawyer blog.
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