Dotson v. Pfizer, Inc.

Citation558 F.3d 284
Decision Date04 March 2009
Docket NumberNo. 07-1920.,No. 07-1979.,07-1920.,07-1979.
PartiesJames D. DOTSON, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. PFIZER, INCORPORATED, Defendant-Appellant. James D. Dotson, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Pfizer, Incorporated, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (4th Circuit)

ARGUED: Thomas A. Farr, Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C., Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellant/Cross-Appellee. William Parker Barrett, Williams Mullen, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellee/Cross-Appellant. ON BRIEF: James H. Stewart, III, Phillip J. Strach, Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C., Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellant/Cross-Appellee. Joshua M. Krasner, Jonathan R. Bumgarner, Brian C. Vick, Williams Mullen, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellee/Cross-Appellant.

Before MOTZ and AGEE, Circuit Judges, and JAMES C. CACHERIS, Senior United States District Judge for the Eastern District of Virginia, sitting by designation.

Affirmed in part, reversed in part, vacated in part, and remanded by published opinion. Senior Judge CACHERIS wrote the opinion, in which Judge MOTZ and Judge AGEE joined.


CACHERIS, Senior District Judge:

This case reaches the Court after a full trial on the merits in the Eastern District of North Carolina. James Dotson ("Dotson") brought suit against his employer, Pfizer, Inc. ("Pfizer"), for violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, 29 U.S.C. § 2601, et seq. (the "FMLA"). The jury awarded Dotson $1,876.00 on his FMLA interference claim and $331,429.25 on his retaliation claim. The district court awarded Dotson $333,305.25 in statutory liquidated damages, $375,000.00 in attorneys' fees, and $14,264.88 in costs. Each party appealed different rulings of the district court. Finding error with the district court's decision to deny pre-judgment interest, we affirm in part, reverse in part, vacate in part, and remand.


Pfizer terminated Dotson shortly after he and his wife returned from Russia with their newly-adopted child. Prior to his termination, Dotson had worked at Pfizer for approximately fifteen years. He began his career there in 1988 at an entry-level sales position. In 1991 he was promoted to District Manager; seven years later he became a Regional Manager responsible for more than 100 sales representatives.

In 2002, Dotson took on a new position as an Institutional Healthcare Account Manager in Pfizer's National Healthcare Organizations ("NHO") division. There, he dealt with managed care organizations, insurance companies, and large employers rather than healthcare providers. The parties dispute the facts related to Dotson's 2002 reassignment. Pfizer characterizes the new job as a demotion for unsatisfactory performance. Dotson notes that he did not take a pay cut and that he received no information indicating performance deficiencies. Approximately one year later, Dotson was reassigned again, this time as a Regional Account Manager in the same institutional healthcare division. In his new position, Dotson's immediate supervisor was Chris Kennedy ("Kennedy"), who reported to Regional Manager Patrick McElerney ("McElerney").

As part of his training as a sales representative, Dotson was instructed in the proper handling of sample packs of Pfizer products, called "starters." Sales representatives provide starters to doctors, who give them to their patients in order to get a patient "started" on a drug for which the doctor will then write prescriptions. The Food and Drug Administration regulates the use of starters. The Prescription Drug Marketing Act, 21 U.S.C. § 353 et seq. (the "PDMA"), covers their distribution. The PDMA requires Pfizer to track and account for any starters given to physicians. Pfizer uses electronic tracking and "starter activity forms" to fulfill its responsibilities under the statute.

The PDMA also requires pharmaceutical companies to report any improper diversions of starters or intentional falsifications of starter forms. Violations can result in sanctions ranging from fines and the loss of drug distribution rights to imprisonment for some criminal violations of the statute. Under its starter policies, Pfizer can discharge employees for violations; however, at the time Dotson was fired, the company did not provide specific details of its standards for discharge. The NHO division was not responsible for handling starters and did not receive starter activity forms or shipments of starters.

In early 2003, Dotson and his family began working with an adoption agency to adopt a child from Russia. Dotson called a Pfizer third-party benefits contractor to inquire about adoption benefits provided by the company. Later that year, Dotson and his wife learned that they could adopt a baby girl but would have to make at least two trips to Russia to complete the adoption. Dotson spoke with a Pfizer human resources ("HR") representative about taking leave during the adoption process. Testimony differed as to what the HR representative, Amy Burnell ("Burnell"), told Dotson about his intention to use accrued vacation time and the applicability of FMLA benefits. Burnell referred Dotson to another HR officer whom Dotson never contacted. He used accrued vacation time to take his first trip to Russia. Both parties agree that, around this time, Dotson's relationship with his immediate supervisor, Kennedy, was deteriorating.

Around August 2003, Dotson obtained starters from a Pfizer sales representative that he intended to give to the Director of Medicine for the North Carolina Highway Patrol. Pfizer alleges that Dotson's request for and subsequent handling of the starter violated company protocol. Later, after finding out that he was eligible to adopt and learning from the agency that it was customary to bring gifts for the orphanage, Dotson decided to obtain a case of starters of the antibiotic Zithromax to take to the orphanage in Russia. In connection with this decision, the parties dispute Dotson's intent, his familiarity with starter protocol, and whether he knew that such an endeavor violated company policy. Dotson delivered the Zithromax to the orphanage on his first trip to Russia.

During a performance review shortly after that first trip, Dotson's two immediate supervisors informed him that they were unhappy with his job performance and expressed concern about his use of the Zithromax. Dotson later contacted his regional HR director, Ann Hodges ("Hodges"), to discuss the negative performance review. Hodges also said she was concerned about Dotson's handling of starters. After speaking with Hodges, Dotson left with his wife for a second trip to Russia. Pfizer then began an evaluation of Dotson's actions. As part of that evaluation, McElerney related a summary of Dotson's actions to Steve Harper, a Pfizer Vice President, who believed that the use of the Zithromax could be viewed as a prohibited quid pro quo with the Russian orphanage. Harper determined that Dotson's conduct warranted discharge, and an executive group within Pfizer management concurred. Pfizer terminated Dotson on November 11, 2003 — less than three weeks after Dotson and his wife returned from Russia with their adopted child. Dotson claims that the starter issue was used as a pretext to fire him and that the "policy" against his use of the starters was unknown to anyone outside the group that made the decision to terminate him. Pfizer did not report Dotson's alleged PDMA violation until 2005.

Dotson filed suit in September 2004. In October 2005, Pfizer amended its Answer to assert an after-acquired evidence defense against Dotson. The new defense related to Dotson's delivery of starters to the North Carolina Highway Patrol and to his purported misleading of a Pfizer starter control official, which Pfizer claims led to its late reporting of the PDMA violation. A jury trial began in May 2006 and lasted eight days. The jury found that Pfizer interfered with Dotson's rights to FMLA leave and that it discharged Dotson in retaliation for his exercise of those rights. It awarded him $1,876 on his claim of interference and $331,429.25 on his retaliation claim. Pfizer filed a Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law ("JMOL") and an alternative Motion for a New Trial in June 2006. After the trial, Dotson filed a Proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law Regarding Front Pay and a Motion for Liquidated Damages, Attorneys' Fees, and Costs. The Court denied Pfizer's JMOL motion and awarded Dotson $375,000 in liquidated damages, as well as attorneys' fees and costs. It denied Dotson's motion for front pay and prejudgment interest. On appeal, Pfizer challenges the court's denial of its JMOL motion, the award of liquidated damages, and the amount of attorneys' fees awarded. Dotson appeals the court's denial of pre-judgment interest and front pay, and contends that the award of attorneys' fees was inadequate.


Pfizer argues that the district court erred by denying its post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law. We review the denial of a motion for judgment as a matter of law de novo, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party. Rodriguez v. Smithfield Packing Co., 338 F.3d 348, 354 (4th Cir. 2003) (citing Austin v. Paramount Parks, Inc., 195 F.3d 715, 727 (4th Cir.1999)). A trial court may grant judgment as a matter of law when it "finds that a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for" the non-moving party. Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(1); see Brown v. CSX Transp., Inc., 18 F.3d 245, 248 (4th Cir.1994). A court, however, may not disturb the verdict where there was sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find in the non-movant's favor. Lack v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 240 F.3d 255, 259 (4th Cir.2001). "A trial court may not appropriately enter [JMOL] unless it concludes, after consideration of the record as a whole in the light most favorable to the non-movant, that the...

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