DeKalb County Superior Court
LABOR LAW: Wrongful Termination
Georgia Housing & Finance Authority
Case No. 93-CV-11023,
Feb. 27, 1995
Attorneys: Adam Conti (Wimberly & Lawson), Atlanta, for plaintiff.
Jeff Milsteen, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Atlanta, for defendants.
A DeKalb County jury believed that a state employee was fired because he voiced his concerns over possible improper raises within the organization where he had worked for 15 years. The jury awarded him more than $150,000 in back pay and punitive damages.
During 1993, John Dugan was employed by the Georgia Housing & Finance Authority (GHFA). He had worked as the director of finance since 1978. Zack Cravey was the chairman of the board of directors. In March 1993, David Pinson had replaced Terry Duvernay, the former director of GHFA.
Dugan learned in 1993 that certain employees in GHFA had received raises even though the organization was under a salary freeze pursuant to Governor Zell Miller’s orders. More specifically, Dugan discovered that Duvernay had given large salary increases to several employees holding high positions within GHFA. Some of the raises were supposedly accomplished by reclassifying the employees.
Dugan broached this subject with Pinson, the interim director. From April through June of 1993, Dugan on various occasions mentioned to Pinson that the board of directors should be notified of the possible violations of the governor’s orders. Pinson attempted each time to dissuade Dugan from raising the issue, cautioning him that it might not be a wise career move.
However, Dugan was insistent. In mid-June, while Pinson was present, Dugan spoke with Cravey, the chairman of the board, about the improper pay increases. Within two weeks, the board agreed to establish a committee to oversee all future raises within GHFA.
Dugan and Chisenhall, another employee with GHFA, had a problem with Pinson’s use of vulgar, sexually explicit and threatening language. The two claimed that other employees had been on the receiving end of Pinson’s offensive, foul language. Dugan and Chisenhall thus submitted in late June, 1993 a formal, written complaint to the human resources manager, Linda Pryor, regarding Pinson’s use of vulgar and sexually related language in his capacity as interim director of GHFA.
On July 9, 1993, both Chisenhall and Dugan were summarily dismissed. They did not have an opportunity to respond to any charges against them. According to Pinson and GHFA, Dugan was an “at will” employee and thus could be fired at any time. Furthermore, Dugan had a series of performance problems in regard to his response to certain fiscal difficulties.
Dugan filed suit against the GHFA and Pinson individually, arguing that he was improperly fired for exercising his First Amendment right of free speech concerning the improper raises and Pinson’s use of offensive language. He requested back pay based on the compensation level he was receiving at the time he was fired, $76,683 per year. In addition, Dugan sought recovery of his employment benefits, out-of-pocket expenses, costs, attorneys fees and $100,000 in compensatory damages pursuant to U.S.C. section 1981.
At trial, Dugan and Chisenhall both testified regarding Pinson’s foul language and his use of threats against other employees. Chisenhall stated that he was threatened by Pinson as well. Another employee, Carrie Mylum, testified that she was threatened and verbally abused by Pinson. Dugan also called Pinson’s secretary, Phyllis Thomas, who testified that at one point she overheard Pinson say that he was going to get Dugan.
The court directed a verdict in favor of the GHFA and Pinson regarding Pinson’s actions concerning the formal complaint Dugan and Chisenhall submitted to Pryor.
As for the issue of Dugan’s job performance, Dugan testified on his own behalf and Pinson spoke in regards to Dugan’s failure to perform properly and to keep up with the changing times. Judy Anderson, a member of the board of directors, was called by Pinson. According to Anderson, Pinson had broached the subject of Dugan’s performance and his dismissal with her and the board. Anderson stated that Pinson’s decision to let Dugan go was agreed to by the board.
Judge Robert P. Mallis presided over the five-day trial. The jury deliberated for over six hours. They concluded that Dugan was indeed fired for exercising his First Amendment rights and that Pinson would not have fired Dugan but for Dugan’s actions in expressing himself.They awarded him back pay of $120,740 and punitive damages of $30,000