Sixth Circuit Upholds Verdict for Pharmaceutical Employee
December 14, 2011 - Comments Off
The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld a decision by a Michigan district court to deny a defendant’s motion for judgment as a matter of law after a jury found for the plaintiff. In Morrison v. B. Braun Medical Inc., the Sixth Circuit held that it was reasonable for the jury to conclude that B. Braun had wrongfully discharged Lynn Morrison in violation of Michigan’s public policy. The Sixth Circuit found that despite an imperfect employment record, Morrison’s history of repeatedly speaking out against unlawful practices on the part of B. Braun employees – and often being verbally reprimanded for doing so – was sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude that Morrison’s refusal to violate the law was one of B. Braun’s reasons for terminating her employment.
Morrison was an employee at B. Braun, a Pennsylvania corporation that manufactures and sells pharmaceutical products, from 1998 until her termination in April 2007. While employed at B. Braun, Morrison repeatedly told her supervisors and other employees that she was unwilling to unlawfully promote medical products “off-label” – the practice of using or prescribing a medical product for a purpose other than what the Federal Drug Administration has approved it for – or to violate anti-kickback laws. After years of these sorts of refusals, many of which ended in verbal confrontations with her supervisors, she was given two “Performance Improvement Plans,” which she did not meet, and was terminated. Morrison sued, and the jury returned a verdict in her favor. B. Braun filed a motion for judgment as a matter of law, which the district court denied and upheld the jury verdict.
B. Braun challenged the district court’s ruling and jury instructions as a matter of law because, it argued, Morrison did not show proof of “an employer directive” to violate the law. In Michigan, an at-will employee may generally be terminated for any (or no) reason. However, courts recognize an exception to this rule when the grounds for termination violate public policy. Courts have found a termination in violation of public policy “where the alleged reason for the discharge of the employee was the failure or refusal to violate a law in the course of employment.” The Court stated that no Michigan court “has defined this cause of action to require a plaintiff to show that the employer directed him or her to violate the law.” Accordingly, the Court rejected the defendant’s argument that the court had erred in its jury instructions.
B. Braun also argued that Morrison had not presented sufficient evidence that her refusal to violate the law was the reason for her discharge. However, the Court noted that Michigan courts have previously held that an employee must only show that their failure or refusal to violate the law was “one of” the motives or reasons for their discharge – not the only reason, and not even the main reason. The Court found that “a reasonable juror could have concluded that one of the reasons that made a difference in B. Braun’s decision to fire Morrison was her refusal or failure to violate the law.” Accordingly, the Court rejected B. Braun’s causation argument, and upheld the verdict.