Judge Upholds $24M Award in Suit by Employee with Social Anxiety Disorder
A federal district court judge in Massachusetts has upheld a $24 million jury award for a woman who sued her employer for retaliation and discrimination because of her social anxiety disorder.
The employer, PPD Development, has criticized the outcome handed down by a jury in March and in June asked the court to set aside the verdict or reduce the award, which it maintains is excessive and unsupported by the evidence at trial.
But U.S. District Judge Leo T. Sorokin on November 1 rejected PPD’s requests and defended the jury verdict and the multi-million dollar award for former PPD employee Lisa Menninger.
“Nothing that occurred, in the court’s view, warrants a new trial,” Sorokin wrote. The judge called the findings and conclusions of the jury “unassailable” in dismissing the call for a new trial.
“The award in total is large, but so is the harm PPD inflicted on Menninger,” Sorokin added in affirming the $24 million award that included compensatory and punitive damages.
Menninger was hired by clinical testing firm PPD in 2015 as executive director of the firm’s central labs in Kentucky. Menninger began working remotely from Massachusetts starting in 2017 until February 2019, when she was terminated, she believes because of her disability, a social anxiety disorder. PPD was acquired by Massachusetts-based Thermo Fisher Scientific in 2021.
Menninger sued in 2019, claiming that after she disclosed to her supervisor that she suffered from an anxiety disorder, PPD unlawfully discriminated against her, failed to reasonably accommodate her disability, tried to force her out, and eventually fired her.
PPD sought summary judgment, denying all allegations and citing the history of what it had done to try to accommodate Menninger due to her disability.
In March 2022, Sorokin denied PPD’s motions to dismiss the case. He let the case go to trial because he said there were questions of fact that a jury needed to decide, including what activities for the job might qualify as essential.
After a 10-day trial this past March, a federal jury in Massachusetts found PPD violated federal and state disability laws. The jury found that PPD had failed to provide reasonable accommodation and unlawfully discriminated and retaliated against Menninger.
Eleven months before she was terminated, Menninger’s supervisor told her the company was looking to improve its sales performance over the previous year and that her role and those of others in senior leadership would become “more visible involving increased client visits, social interactions, and presentations.”
The prospect of needing to be more visible prompted Menninger to disclose for the first time to anyone at PPD that she suffers from “generalized anxiety disorder that includes social anxiety disorder and panic attacks” in an email to her supervisor. The thought of increased client visits and social interactions caused her great distress, resulting in “increased anxiety with somatic symptoms, including diarrhea, heart racing, sweatiness, and increased great respiratory rate.”
Menninger submitted a form from her psychiatrist who noted that changes to her role would increase her anxiety and make it “substantially more difficult, if not impossible,” for her to perform her job. She thus requested that any such interactions, if required, be “planned in consultation with her medical provider.”
Menninger maintains that after she made the disclosure, the company treated her differently.
The company, however, claims it began questioning her performance and proposed more visibility before it knew about her disorder and then it tried its best to accommodate Menninger as required under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Massachusetts disability law. PPD agreed to provide accommodations in two of five job categories by reducing travel expectations and by allowing Menninger to have a reader present for internal company meetings
However, PPD said that it could not grant other proposed accommodations because they involved responsibilities of the job that were essential for her to fulfill.
Menninger argued that these responsibilities were not previously considered essential and she had succeeded in her job up until then by having limited involvement with client visits, social interactions, and presentations. She had received a performance rating for 2017 of “Fully Effective” which was one rating lower than her 2016 rating.
In June 2018, Menninger informed PPD that her doctor advised her to take medical leave immediately. Menninger remained on leave for the next eight months. Eventually on February 1, 2019, PPD terminated Menninger’s employment.
In her suit, Menninger asserted that PPD discriminated against her on the basis of her disability and her request for workplace accommodations, and that the company retaliated against her after she made an internal complaint that she felt she was being targeted.
PPD maintained that it accommodated Menninger’s “very specific and unreasonably limiting requests” to the best of its ability, took no adverse action against her whatsoever, and allowed her to take eight months of leave. “There is no evidence that PPD acted unlawfully,” the company insisted.
At the end of a 10-day trial with testimony by 13 witnesses, the jury found that PPD had failed to provide reasonable accommodation and unlawfully discriminated and retaliated against Menninger.
Per the jury verdict, Sorokin entered final judgment in favor of Menninger and against PPD on counts of disability discrimination and retaliation under federal law and disability discrimination and retaliation under Massachusetts law in the amounts of: $1,565,000 for back pay; $5,465,000 for front pay; $5,000,000 for past emotional distress; $2,000,000 for future emotional distress, and $10,000,000 in punitive damages. The court also added prejudgment interest. attorney’s fees and legal costs.
Sorokin indicated that momentum grew in favor of Menninger as the trial progressed with witnesses and evidence. He said Menninger herself was an “articulate, credible, and extremely effective witness” and two main witnesses called by PPD actually boosted Menninger’s arguments.
He criticized PPD’s bid to erase the verdict for “flawed legal arguments” and a “selective recitation of the record which ignores evidence presented to the jury that plainly supports the verdict.”
Thermo Fisher told the Boston Globe it plans to appeal the ruling to the First Circuit Court of Appeals.
Sorokin concluded his 24-page ruling with these words:
“The jury in this case did not merely conclude that PPD intentionally discriminated and retaliated against Menninger. It found that the foregoing was an organized, considered effort by a number of executive-level employees who were well aware that their conduct violated the law and that the course of action they were undertaking was inflicting real and substantial harm. The jury agreed that ‘PPD broke Lisa Menninger.’ It concluded that PPD’s employees—during the course of the relevant events and again on the witness stand at trial— disingenuously claimed otherwise, demonstrating a flagrant disregard for the requirements of the law and the effects of their conduct.
“To be sure, the sum total of the verdict is quite large. The evidence presented and the jury’s findings therefrom, however, reasonably and fairly support each component of the award. As is often true, the evidence adduced at this trial could have permitted a jury to make different findings and reach different conclusions than this jury did. But the Court finds that this jury’s determinations and conclusions are amply supported under the facts and law. Nothing that occurred, in the Court’s view, warrants a new trial. Nor, again in the Court’s considered view, is there a basis for suspecting a so-called “runaway jury,” blinded by emotion. This jury diligently attended to the evidence presented to it, then rendered a considered and thoughtful verdict grounded in that evidence. Each category of damages is fairly and reasonably supported. The award in total is large, but so is the harm PPD inflicted on Menninger.”
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