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Md. appellate court throws out $830K verdict for former Lockheed employee

The state’s intermediate appellate court has overturned an $830,000 jury verdict awarded to a former Lockheed Martin employee who sued the company for retaliation, alleging he was fired because he had complained about a poor performance review.

The Court of Special Appeals found that Vincent Balderrama, who was one of 600 employees let go by the company as part of a cost-cutting round of layoffs in 2013, had failed to provide sufficient evidence that the layoffs were not the the real reason for his firing, but instead were a pretext to cover up a retaliatory motive.

Due to the lack of evidence, the Montgomery County Circuit Court erred in failing to grant Lockheed Martin’s motion for summary judgment on the retaliation claim, Judge Kathryn Grill Graeff wrote in the appellate court’s unanimous opinion filed Thursday.

“There was undisputed evidence that there was an economically motivated RIF [reduction in force] at Lockheed Martin resulting in hundreds of people losing their jobs when Mr. Balderrama was terminated, and Mr. Balderrama does not contend to the contrary,” Graeff wrote. “Nor does he dispute that, based on his poor performance review, he was ranked the lowest performer in his group. Mr. Balderrama presents no facts that disproved the reason given by Lockheed Martin for his termination or suggested that the reason given was false.”

Fired for complaint

Before he was fired, Balderrama had appealed a poor performance review — his first in nine years working for the company, according to his lawsuit — and claimed that the poor review was based on discrimination because of his national origin. Balderrama, who is Hispanic, alleged in his suit that he was fired because he had complained of discrimination, a protected activity.

The discrimination claim was thrown out prior to trial, but a jury awarded Balderrama $830,000 on the retaliation claim last year.

Although Balderrama successfully showed that he had engaged in a protected action and had suffered an adverse employment action, he did not prove that his complaint of discrimination was a motivating factor in his termination, the court’s opinion states.

Because Lockheed Martin cited the layoffs as a non-discriminatory reason for Balderrama’s firing, the burden shifted to Balderrama to show that the layoffs were not the actual cause, either by demonstrating why a discriminatory reason “more likely” motivated Lockheed or by showing that Lockheed’s explanation for his termination was not credible, Graeff wrote.

But Balderrama presented no evidence that the layoffs were not based on objective performance criteria, the opinion states, forcing the court to overrule the jury verdict.

“To hold otherwise would mean that an employee who receives a poor performance evaluation and is concerned that economically motivated layoffs are on the horizon need only file a complaint asserting that the evaluation was discriminatory, and the company is then subject to a lawsuit and a verdict against it. That is not the law,” Graeff wrote. “The employee must produce some evidence that the inclusion in the reduction of force was retaliatory, as opposed to performance based. Mr. Balderrama failed to do so in this case.”

Steve Klepper of Kramon & Graham P.A., who represented Lockheed in front of the appellate court, deferred a request for comment on the ruling to a Lockheed Martin spokesman, who did not immediately return telephone and email messages on Friday.

Adam Carter of The Employment Law Group P.C. in Washington, who represented Balderrama, did not immediately return a call seeking comment on the lawsuit.

The case is Lockheed Martin Corporation v. Victor Balderrama, No. 379, September Term 2015.

About Lauren Kirkwood

Lauren Kirkwood covers the business of law beat at The Daily Record.