Friday, September 25, 2009

Courageous Whistleblower

In looking back on my clients, I realize how amazing they are. There are so many tales of courage and fortitude. I am sure many of these brave souls did not realize what lie ahead and how they would be tested. I want to talk about one remarkable woman, whom I will call Marley, not her real name. Marley worked at a not-for-profit organization that was a member organization for a group of professionals. The organization's board was comprised only of these "busy" professionals. In retrospect, I suspect these people liked having the prestige of being an officer of a board, but didn't really want to take the time to run the board.

This organization had an Executive Director who had been at the helm for many years. Marley was his assistant. She worked with another brave whistleblower, whom I will call Shirlena (not her real name), who acted as the assistant director, whose tale I will tell soon. But this story is Marley's.

Shirlena had shared with Marley that the Executive Director (ED, whom I will call Ed) was taking things from the organization. For instance, Ed had purchased a television/recorder for his son for a Christmas present and charged the organization for it, claiming the item had been given to the membership as a raffle prize at a conference. Shirlena confronted Ed, which was difficult. Shirlena had complained to the board. Eventually, Shirlena was forced out. As I said, I will focus on Shirlena's story later.

Marley was shocked and dismayed at Shirlena's fate. A normal, less brave soul might walk away after witnessing the retaliation against Shirlena. Not only did she contact many members of the board of directors about this example of stealing and several others. She also reported to these directors that she had found pornography on the office computers. She later discovered, through the litigation process, that some of the pornography came from at least one of these very same directors. Marley called director after director, until she was blue in the face, but they did not listen. One, a women, thought she was hyper-sensitive. They all acted as if she were a whiner and complainer. The treasurer whose task it was to conduct an investigation into the allegations of stealing did nothing. He seemed more interested in weaving his own businesses into the fabric of the organization. Ed systematically made Marley's life hell. She was barred from the premises when she reported the pornography while the finance director and Ed brought in new computers and implied that Marley was crazy to complain. Marley was a wreck. She found another job making more money and left the job that she had held and loved for eighteen years.

I tried this case with my friend from the Trial Lawyers College Rafe and also with the assistance of my law partners Marie and Kristi. During the discovery phase of the case, Marley was still distraught. She lost sleep, self-esteem, and at times it seemed to her she was losing her sanity. She became obsessed with the case and was so distraught. When Rafe and I were at her house, she was so frightened that at times she had to run from the room crying. Since the defendant's insurance company claimed they had no coverage, we had no offers and had to go to trial.

The trial came. Marley sat silently at the counsel table holding in her emotion. At the end of each day, she felt like she would explode, as the members of the board directors disavowed knowledge. These people were highly respected professionals, and they didn't give Marley the time of day, while she worked there, and most of them still didn't after she'd left. These were people whom Marley had trusted. For crying out loud, these were trusted professionals who we all expect more from. Ed fessed up to stealing. He still had his job. He fessed up to the pornography because we had the photos. He claimed Marley left on her own.

Marley was wonderful on the stand. She had been so distraught beforehand, but with grit and courage pulled herself together and told her story. They jury heard her. They gave her a verdict of a total of $551,500, even though she had not lost one penny of income. The jurors talked to Marley for two hours. Marley felt good.

But it was not over yet. The employer claimed they were going to file for bankruptcy if we tried to collect the judgment, so we sued the insurance company that had denied coverage. Marley thought her battle had been won, but to her it felt as if we were starting from scratch. We ended up trying the case regarding insurance coverage to a judge. Marley wondered if the whole ordeal had been worth it. She still had nightmares, she still was distraught. Marley called me time and again wondering if telling the truth and stepping forward had been worth it. Ed was still ED at the organization. After a few months, we got the word, there WAS COVERAGE!!!

Finally, years after the verdict, Ed was fired (after Shirlena's trial - more on that later.) Marley collected every penny due her. She and her husband took me out to dinner and we celebrated.

I live in the same community as Marley and we shop at the same grocery store. When I see her she is different. My mother and I ran into Marley and her husband at an Il Divo concert and I ran into her and her husband with my husband at the hospital. They took me to dinner again. It is some two years since Marley's judgment is paid. Marley is a happy person, not the stressed, distraught woman I met. She smiles freely and makes jokes. She and her husband, who recently retired, enjoy life. Marley radiates. She shines. I hadn't seen this Marley before the trial. It is so gratifying to see her now. I hope she is as proud of herself as I am of her.

It is really hard to be a whistleblower when you are at a job you love. How people react to whistleblowers says a lot about them. An individual with the courage to tell the truth, even if it is not in his or her best interest is a remarkable person. Marley is now a grandmother. What a fine example she is for both her daughter and her little granddaughter. I am honored that she allowed me to represent her. What an honor.

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