Writer Sees $1.2 Million Jury Award Cut by Half
(CN) - A university writer who was compared to the Virginia Tech shooter by his boss can only keep half of a $1.2 million jury award, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled.
Dennis L. Smith began working at Iowa State University of Science and Technology in 2001, writing articles for alumni magazines and other publications.
His boss, Pamela Reinig, was the director of the Engineering Communications and Marketing department. She told Smith for three years that she was submitting his name for a promotion, but actually she did not do so.
Smith finally got the promotion in 2005 after telling Reinig he was looking for a new job. His relationship with Reining soured after he helped to hire another writer who Reinig later placed in charge of overseeing Smith's work. Reining gave Smith a "verbal warning" after he complained.
Smith did some investigating into whether he was entitled to a retroactive pay increase when he discovered that the ECM department was not receiving all of the money from one of its clients. He also discovered that Reinig had not submitted his name for the promotion.
After Smith told Reinig he was submitting a grievance against her, she contacted the university police. She said that when she gave Smith the verbal warning, he was "insubordinate, abusive and threatening.
"I am concerned about his potential to become violent," Reinig added.
She received a 13-page grievance from Smith, which she denied. Before doing so, she contacted the police again, stating "I remain quite concerned about this employee. I followed the tragedy at V-Tech closely. So many things about that individual could also be said about Dennis."
Smith eventually took his complaints to the office of Iowa State University Gregory Geoffroy, who awarded him back pay from his previous efforts to be promoted.
Later, a university audit revealed the Reinig had lied about the client billing that Smith was investigating, and that the client was paying her directly. She resigned under threat of termination.
Although Smith noted that the atmosphere at work had improved, he sued the university in 2009, along with its board of regents, the state of Iowa, Reinig and two other employees, for defamation, conspiracy, whistleblower retaliation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
In May 2010, Smith lost his job along with other ECM employees after $2 million was cut from the College of Engineering budget.
Smith won his lawsuit over the state, which the court substituted for the other defendants. The jury awarded Smith $500,000 for emotional distress and $784,027 for whistleblower retaliation.
The state appealed, and the Iowa Court of Appeals upheld the award of emotional distress damages. However, it set aside Smith's damages for whistleblower retaliation, stating that his complaint to Geoffroy's office did not lead to the retaliation.
Both sides appealed, and the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the emotional distress award, citing the defendants' "outrageous conduct."
"First, Reinig engaged in unremitting psychological warfare against Smith over a substantial period of time. She tried to have him treated as a scary and mentally unstable outcast. Second, she did all this to cover up what basically amounted to her theft from ISU," Justice Edward M. Mansfield wrote on the court's behalf.
The court reinstated a portion of the whistleblower retaliation award, but ruled that his job lost was mostly due to budget cuts. Mansfield did reinstate $110,732 in damages for harm to Smith's reputation.
Justice Brent R. Appel wrote a special concurring opinion.
"Even accepting the notion that the unusual character of the reorganization may have been structured in a fashion unfavorable to Smith's continued employment, I am not convinced that Smith has shown the necessary causal link between his report of misconduct to the president," he stated.
Justice David S. Wiggins partially dissented from the majority opinion, stating that Smith should have received the $634,027 in lost income awarded by the lower court but denied by the two higher courts.
He cited a piece of evidence that stated that "the determination was made as early as January 2009 that Smith would be terminated."