A federal judge in Alexandria this week struck down a jury’s verdict that had found that Rand Construction had retaliated against the chief executive’s former executive assistant for taking medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, according to court filings.
Former executive assistant Arlene Fry alleged that the company retaliated against her after she disclosed she had multiple sclerosis and took a two-week leave to treat symptoms. Attorneys representing Rand argued that chief executive Linda Rabbitt had fired Fry over performance issues that had nothing to do with her condition.
The case went to trial in April in U.S. District Court for Virginia’s Eastern District after the two parties failed to reach a settlement. In late April, a federal jury found Rand Construction had retaliated under the FMLA, awarding Fry $50,555. But it ruled in favor of Rand on two other counts related to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Anthony J. Trenga ordered that the verdict in favor of the plaintiff be vacated, meaning the court has now found in favor of Rand on all three counts. According to court documents, Trenga said a new trial would have to take place to reverse his decision.
Akin Gump attorney Anthony Pierce, who represented Rand, said Trenga’s decision represents a victory for the company.
“In April, the jury found the majority of the allegations against my client to be baseless and today the court found the remaining one to be equally without merit,” Pierce said in an email. “Rand Construction is pleased with the outcome of the case.”
R. Scott Oswald, an attorney with the Employment Law Group who represented Fry, criticized the court for overruling the verdict.
“I am disappointed that the court opted to second-guess the work of the jury, which found that Rand intentionally retaliated against its employee for taking time under the Family and Medical Leave Act to recuperate from symptoms of her multiple sclerosis. I’ll be meeting with Ms. Fry to decide next steps,” Oswald said.
Rand argued that Rabbitt had already been planning to fire Fry when she disclosed her condition. Throughout the proceedings Rand referenced a Nov. 15, 2016, incident in which Fry allegedly canceled or failed to schedule an important conference call. After that incident Rabbitt wrote in an email, “I need to replace her. She’s making too many mistakes,” according to court documents.
Fry’s attorneys made the case that Rabbitt’s opinion of Fry changed when she was informed of her illness. According to court documents, Fry had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2010 but did not tell her managers about it until November 2016, just a few months before she was fired.
Court documents describe incidents after Fry returned from leave in which Rabbitt reportedly threw papers at Fry, repeatedly accused her of being on a cruise during her medical leave, and called her “absolutely useless” and a “waste of oxygen.” The plaintiffs also cited a March 2016 email Rabbitt sent to colleagues in which she said “I think when [Fry] takes her medication for bipolar or whatever she has she becomes a snail.”
In a legal document explaining his decision, Judge Trenga wrote that Fry had not put forward sufficient evidence to support the jury’s verdict.
“Based on Fry’s own testimony, there was little difference in Rabbitt’s disposition toward her before and after her FMLA leave; Fry testified that Rabbitt was ‘chronically unhappy’ with her after the November 15, 2016, incident and that her performance issues, or at least Rabbitt’s perception of her performance issues, continued after she returned from leave,” Trenga wrote.
Corrections: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described the jury’s verdict against Rand Construction. The jury found the company liable, not “guilty.” The story also misstated the name of the Family and Medical Leave Act.