Published October 25. 2012 4:00AM
Pfizer Inc.'s appeal of a Hartford jury's decision to award a former company scientist $1.37 million in a whistleblower case will be heard today by a three-judge panel at the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan.
Becky McClain, a longtime molecular biologist at Pfizer's Groton laboratories who won a jury decision in U.S. District Court two years ago after claiming the company retaliated against her for raising safety concerns, said in an email that the hearing is expected to get under way at 2 p.m.
"There is no jury and I will not talk," she said. "But the attorneys argue."
McClain claims that she became dangerously ill after being infected by a virus at Pfizer's laboratories in Groton. But the company claims that the former Deep River resident - now living in Albuquerque, New Mexico - was fired after abandoning her job.
"In reality, Ms. McClain was terminated from employment because she refused to return to work for more than 11 months, and would not return to work for reasons unrelated to her alleged speech," Pfizer said in a statement.
Pfizer said it plans to present "strong arguments" to overturn the jury's decision that the company retailiated against McClain for exercising her free-speech rights.
McClain, whose intermittent bouts of paralysis have subsided over the years, said she raised safety concerns internally at Pfizer and then, after getting nowhere, filed a complaint with the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration, which some critics say is ill equipped to investigate laboratory safety involving complex biological organisms.
OSHA said it found no violations at the Groton laboratories, and District Court Judge Vanessa L. Bryant would not allow McClain to raise the issue during a two-week trial in Hartford. Instead, the jury found that the weight of the evidence was on McClain's side regarding the other major charges: that Pfizer retaliated against her and interfered with her right to free speech.
A workers' rights group called the Injured Workers National Network said it will be supporting McClain by attending today's court hearing in New York City.
"Justice delayed is justice denied, and her struggle for justice is connected to the struggle of thousands of other injured workers," according to an email sent by Steve Zeltzer, a California-based advocate for workers' rights who attended McClain's trial two years ago.
Although McClain was awarded $1.37 million by a jury - later increased by more than $900,000 to cover attorneys' fees and impose punitive damages - the scientist has yet to see a dime because Pfizer appealed the verdict.
Bogging down the process, the original trial judge Bryant acknowledged nearly a year after the trial that she had a conflict of interest. According to court documents, the conflict involved her husband, attorney Tracy L. Rich, who had hired the Hartford-based Jackson Lewis law firm - counsel for Pfizer in its case against McClain - to represent Guardian Life Insurance Co., which he served as general counsel and executive vice president.