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Supreme Judicial Court Affirms $2 Million Judgment upon jury verdict for Bennett & Belfort client Richard DaPrato against the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority

Posted on: June 6th, 2019 by admin

On June 5, 2019, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) affirmed our client’s Suffolk Superior Court jury verdict and judgment in an amount now exceeding $2,000,000 in the case of Richard DaPrato v. Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) 482 Mass. 375 (2019) (click on link for SJC slip opinion: DaPrato v MWRA SJC 6.5.19 ).

Mr. DaPrato was represented both at trial and on appeal by David E. Belfort and Andrew S. McIlvaine of Bennett & Belfort, PC, of Cambridge and Robert S. Mantel of Powers, Jodoin, Margolis & Mantell LLP of Boston. Mr. DaPrato sued the MWRA for firing him because he took medical leave for foot surgery and because he planned to take additional leave in the future. Claims in the case included discrimination and retaliation under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA (29 U.S.C. sec. 2601 et seq.)), The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and under the Massachusetts Fair Employment Practices Act, M.G.L. c. 151B.

In the Superior Court case, the jury strongly rejected the MWRA’s argument that Mr. Daprato violated the public trust. Instead, the jury found that the MWRA, a quasi-public entity, engaged in extreme and outrageous misconduct that violated Mr. DaPrato’s rights to medical leave.

On direct appellate review by the SJC, the MWRA sought a reversal of the jury’s decision and a new trial on a myriad of grounds, including that the jury should have been instructed that an honest but unconsciously biased decision to fire a person should excuse an employer from liability for FMLA discrimination. The SJC rejected the appeal, noting that the so-called “good faith or honest belief” FMLA defense relates to avoiding mandatory liquidated damage awards rather than excusing the underlying retaliatory conduct.

The SJC’s resounding rejection of the MWRA’s appeal reinforces the position that an employer cannot automatically presume a disabled employee is violating the terms of their medical leave when they go on vacation during medical leave. At trial, DaPrato’s supervisor acknowledged that he knew DaPrato was on medical leave and testified that had previously approved DaPrato’s vacation to Mexico. DaPrato’s treating physician confirmed that DaPrato was not cleared to return to work during the leave and vacation period. The physician also testified that DaPrato’s vacation activities did not violate his post-surgical restrictions. Furthermore, DaPrato entered his annual vacation in the office calendar system, received permission to park his car at the MWRA facility during the vacation, and attended a staff meeting where he announced that he was leaving on vacation to senior managers. Nonetheless, the MWRA did not seek to review his medical records, declined to conduct an independent medical examination, and ignored the FMLA paperwork that DaPrato submitted. Perhaps most shocking, the MWRA brazenly claimed that DaPrato denied going on vacation altogether when confronted. The SJC affirmed the punitive damages award in full, commenting that it underscored the jury’s conclusion that the MWRA acted in an extreme and outrageous manner. In allowing this punitive damages award to stand, the Court cited to DaPrato’s long tenure without any discipline, the punitive award’s reasonable relationship to the compensatory damages, and the litany of pretext evidence in the record.

The SJC’s decision affirms the trial judgment issued to Mr. DaPrato after his jury trial in the following specific amounts $19,777 in back pay, $188,666 in front pay, $200,000 in emotional distress, $715,385 in punitive damages, $208,443 in liquidated damages, and $605,690 in pre-appeal attorneys’ fees. Including statutory interest of 12%, the aggregate final judgment is expected to significantly exceed $2,000,000.  See Law 360 article: Law 360 6.5.19

Congratulations to our client, Rick DaPrato, and to the entire trial team at Bennett & Belfort PC.

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