Court Strikes Whistle-Blower's Bid For Jury Trial in Retaliation Controversy

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Nov. 13 -- A former compliance official for a housing-construction-products manufacturer is not entitled to a jury trial on allegations he was fired in violation of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act's whistle-blower anti-retaliation provision, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia concluded Nov. 12 (Pruett v. BlueLinx Holdings Inc., N.D. Ga., No. 1:13-cv-02607-JOF, 11/13/13).

Senior Judge J. Owen Forrester concluded that the remedies available--reinstatement with double back pay and litigation costs--essentially are equitable in nature.

The court recounted that plaintiff Jeffrey Pruitt claimed he was fired from his job as compliance manager at BlueLinx Holdings Inc. (BXC) for reporting possible corporate misconduct to the Securities and Exchange Commission. His prayer for relief included a request for punitive damages and a demand for a jury trial; BlueLinx countered that neither is available under the Dodd-Frank provision.

Concurring, the court first said Pruitt acknowledged that punitive damages are not currently available; however, he urged that dismissal be without prejudice in the event the statute is interpreted differently in the future. Refusing the request, the court said that if the law or its interpretation changes while the case remains pending, Pruett can raise the issue at that time. 

Automatic Calculation

Since the statute is silent as to the availability of a jury trial, the court continued, the major consideration is whether the remedy sought is legal or equitable in nature. It said that while reinstatement and back pay generally are considered equitable remedies, the matter is complicated by Dodd-Frank's provision for doubled back pay.

Pruett argued that the doubling provision takes the matter out of the equitable arena and moves it to damages. BlueLinx rejoined that doubling back pay “is an automatic calculation unlike compensatory or punitive damages.”

Agreeing with the defendant, the court said automatic doubling “is a calculation that lacks the discretion generally associated with monetary damages awarded by a jury.” For these and other reasons, it concluded that Pruett is not entitled to a jury trial.

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