Thursday, January 11, 2018

Jury Awards $8 Million to Fired DOE Contractor Employee

In 2015, Julie Atwood, a senior project manager with DOE (Department of Energy) contractor MSA (Mission Support Alliance LLC) filed a lawsuit against MSA alleging retaliation, discrimination, and wrongful termination. Also named in the suit was Steve Young, MSA's Vice President of Portfolio Management (also the mayor of a local city) and its COO (Chief Operations Officer). At the time of filing, MSA was a joint venture of Lockheed, Centera, and Jacobs Engineering. Lockheed has since sold its interest in the joint venture to Leidos.

In 2010, MSA hired Ms. Atwood as Project Manager of Environmental Regulatory and Waste Management. At that time, she had nearly 30 years in the field of regulatory compliance, waste management and environmental affairs. Three years later, she was terminated, despite having had excellent performance evaluations.

In her lawsuit, Ms. Atwood alleged that in September 2013, Mr. Young mistakenly believed that she was responsible for an anonymous report to MSA alleging that he was creating a hostile work environment. Before MSA began its own internal investigation of the anonymous report, the COO reported to DOE (Department of Energy) that it was investigating Ms. Atwood for timecard fraud (The investigation eventually cleared Ms. Atwood of any timecard fraud). Then, MSA forced Ms Atwood to sign a resignation letter on the threat that she would lose her benefits. After signing the resignation letter, she was escorted out of the building while co-workers looked on.

The matter finally went to trial last September and the Jury awarded Ms. Atwood damages in the amount of $8.1 million ($2.1 million in lost wages and $5 million in emotional harm damages). The Jury also found that Mr. Young aided and abetted in MSA's wrongful actions. The Jury found that she was fired in retaliation for statements made to investigators and that her gender was a substantial factor in her termination.

Earlier this week, a judge refused to reduce the $8.1 million verdict against MSA and Young and also denied them a new trial. The Judge noted that Ms. Atwood had endured mistreatment due to the corporate culture of MSA before her termination. Evidence was also presented of long-lasting emotional harm and physical side effects, which the jury evidently believed, according to the Judge. The evidence indicates that her mental suffering went far beyond 'simple disappointment' from losing her job.

Concerning gender discrimination, the Judge found that it did not have to be the only, or even the main motivation in the decision to fire Ms. Atwood. "There rarely is direct evidence in the form of a smoking gun to prove gender discrimination. Many cases are frequently based on circumstantial evidence. The evidence of the corporate culture at the contractor and some alleged off-color gender-based comments by Mr. Young, provided sufficient circumstantial evidence of gender discrimination to allow the issue to be submitted to the Jury.

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