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‘Shooting the messenger’ costs Germantown company $650K

Reporting a co-worker’s claim of discrimination cost Donna Jackson her job, but forcing Jackson out may well have cost her employer $650,000.

That’s how much a Montgomery County Circuit Court jury ordered Edgewood Management Corp. to pay Jackson after the Germantown-based property management firm told her to accept a demotion, a pay cut and a transfer, “or else.”

Jackson, who had worked for Edgewood for more than 30 years, claimed the changes were meant to punish her for going over her boss’s head to report his public castigation of another female employee.

Jackson’s lawyer, Nicholas W. Woodfield, said third-party retaliation claims like this one are unusual.

“The jury is saying, ‘We will make you pay if you retaliate,’” said Woodfield, of The Employment Law Group LLC in Washington, D.C. “‘If you kill the messenger, you’re going to have to pay for it.’”

Edgewood Management, which manages residential properties, denied Jackson’s allegations.

The company’s attorneys — Matthew W. Lee and Yoora Pak of Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker LLP in McLean, Va.—  did not return telephone messages seeking comment.

However, the defense is challenging the verdict. On Oct. 6, Edgewood’s lawyers filed motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, to reduce the judgment to conform to the Montgomery County Code, and to stay enforcement.

No hearing on those motions had been scheduled as of Friday.

In the middle

According to Jackson’s complaint, the trouble started about two years ago, after her aide refused to accept a transfer to another position and location.

The aide, Drema Wagner, reported to Jackson. Jackson reported to property manager Art Reyes.

On Dec. 10, 2009, Reyes confronted Wagner in front of other employees and even clients about Wagner’s refusal to accept the transfer, which would have replaced her wage of $18 an hour with a salary of $40,000 a year.

Wagner told Reyes she did not want the longer commute and that she believed the new area was less safe. Reyes then said he was cutting Wagner’s hourly wage to $13.

Wagner wrote a letter detailing what had happened and gave it to Jackson, her supervisor, the next day.

The letter said Reyes had ignored Wagner’s request to discuss the matter in private, even though Reyes had used a private office that day to tell a male co-worker that his position was being eliminated.

Jackson carried the letter to the company’s regional vice president, Norman Azougha, and described the allegations to him.

Azougha told Jackson to put Wagner’s letter in her file but took no further action, according to Jackson’s complaint.

The retaliation began six weeks later, with Reyes and Azougha delivering a written reprimand to Jackson based on a tenant’s allegation that she was racist, the complaint said.

Jackson, who managed Edgewood’s Glenview Garden Apartments in Glen Burnie, said she had recently barred the woman’s adult daughter from visiting the complex. The daughter had been arrested on suspicion of selling drugs on the property.

On Feb. 24, 2010, Reyes and Azougha demoted Jackson, reduced her annual compensation from $55,900 to $50,000 and transferred her to two new locations, in Indian Head and Capitol Heights, resulting in an 84-mile commute.

Azougha told Jackson she would be fired if she did not accept the transfer from Glenview Garden, which was two miles from her home, the complaint said.

The next day, Jackson and Wagner announced their resignations.

Jackson’s last day at Edgewood was March 25, 2010.

She sued Edgewood on Sept. 3, 2010, alleging the company, through its officers, had violated state and county laws by illegally retaliating against her for having lawfully opposed a discriminatory practice.

The jury reached its verdict on Sept. 26, 2011, awarding Jackson $500,000 in economic damages and $150,000 in non-economic damages. The judgment was entered and recorded on Oct. 3.

Wagner was not a party to the lawsuit.

Donna Jackson v. Edgewood Management Corp.

Court:

Montgomery County Circuit Court

Case No.:

337495V

Proceeding:

Jury trial

Judge:

Eric M. Johnson

Outcome:

Plaintiff’s verdict

Award:

Economic damages of $500,000 and noneconomic damages of $150,000

Dates:

Event: Feb. 24, 2010

Suit filed: Sept. 3, 2010

Trial: Sept. 19, 2011-Sept. 26, 2011

Jury verdict: Sept. 26, 2011

Plaintiff’s Attorneys:

Nicholas W. Woodfield and R. Scott Oswald of The Employment Law Group PC in Washington, D.C.

Defendants’ Attorneys:

Matthew W. Lee, Yoora Pak and Katherine Barrett of Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker LLP in McLean, Va.

Count:

Employment retaliation.

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