McClain v. Pfizer Inc.
A court can award punitive damages, if the evidence establishes a reckless indifference to the rights of others or an intentional and wanton violation of those rights. The plaintiff, Becky McClain, sued her former employer, Pfizer, alleging it retaliated, in violation of Connecticut General Statutes §31-51q, because of McClain's speech about workplace safety. A jury returned a plaintiff's verdict. Pfizer Inc. appealed to the 2nd Circuit. The 2nd Circuit reviewed de novo. C.G.S. §31-51q provides, "Any employer . . . who subjects any employee to discipline or discharge on account of the exercise by such employee of rights guaranteed by the first amendment . . . provided such activity does not substantially or materially interfere with the employee's bona fide job performance or the working relationship between the employee and the employer, shall be liable to such employee for damages caused by such discipline or discharge. . . ." To prevail, a plaintiff must establish: 1.) she exercised rights protected by the First Amendment; 2.) she was disciplined because of her exercise of First Amendment rights; and 3.) her exercise of free speech did not substantially or materially interfere with bona fide job performance or her working relationship with the employer. A jury reasonably could have found that McClain was disciplined because of her protected speech, and that her speech did not substantially or materially interfere with job performance or McClain's working relationships at Pfizer. Pfizer abandoned its argument that McClain was not speaking as a citizen about a matter of public concern. Pfizer failed to prove the verdict resulted from surmise and conjecture, or that no rational individual could have ruled in favor of McClain. Punitive damages are appropriate if the evidence "reveal[s] a reckless indifference to the rights of others or an intentional and wanton violation of those rights," pursuant to the Connecticut Supreme Court's 1992 decision, City of West Haven v. Hartford Insurance. "McClain," wrote the 2nd Circuit, "presented sufficient evidence to support the jury's finding that Pfizer acted wilfully, maliciously, or with reckless indifference." The 2nd Circuit affirmed the judgment of the District Court, Eginton, J.