Jury believes university ‘whistleblower’

A civil case in which a former Chico State University employee alleged she was retaliated against and lost her job for blowing the whistle on alleged illegal activities in her office has ended, for now, with each side feeling somewhat vindicated.

On May 10, after an eight-week trial, a jury decided that Janette Lambert was “constructively terminated” and defamed, and it awarded her compensatory damages of nearly $300,000—high for a Butte County civil trial, but less than the $1.8 million Lambert had sought.

Lambert’s former bosses, Martha Williams and Christopher Malone, director and associate director of the university’s Education Support Program, were additionally found to have acted maliciously, which paved the way for the potential awarding of punitive damages on May 15. Also facing monetary damages were employees Susan Hofius and Linda MacMichael, who were earlier directed to pay $2 each for “retaliation"—keeping Lambert from getting a new job.

But in an 11-1 decision, jurors determined—after barely a half-hour of deliberation—that $1,000 against Williams was the only punitive award merited.

Lambert’s Sacramento attorney, Angela Casagranda, in what was her first jury trial, asked the jurors not only to “finally hold [the defendants] responsible for their actions,” which she called “heartless and callous acts,” but also to send a message to the university. “There has to be a sting to the damages or there will be no punishment at all,” she said, asking for a total of $80,000.

Nancy Sheehan, who was retained by the university to defend the employees, countered that the earlier verdict that Williams and Malone had acted maliciously has been “a shame and an embarrassment and a humiliation. That there is punishment enough.”

“The news has traveled throughout the community,” Sheehan added, comparing media coverage to the stockades in the public squares of the 16th century. (In fact, Tim Bousquet of the Chico Examiner was the only reporter to the cover the trial until recent weeks, when the Enterprise-Record stepped in and television reports followed.)

The attorneys had spent much of the morning quibbling over what jurors should know about the defendant’s net worth, and whether their personal financial statements should be laid out for all to see.

Ultimately, what the defendants could afford to pay may have been moot: Under state law, the university has to defend and pay judgments when an employee is sued for what he or she does as part of the job. But the jury wasn’t allowed to know that. Judge Loyd Mulkey instructed the jurors: “Who’s going to pay this judgment is not your business.”

Casagranda said later that even the $1,000 in punitive damages was a win, although, “I would prefer that the individuals would be held responsible rather than the taxpayer.”

She said Lambert is “glad it’s over.”

Lambert’s accusations were far-reaching. In court filings, she claimed that there were favorites in the office who got free time off, that some employees misused public funds, and that she was asked to do supervisors’ personal tasks on state time. She told higher-ups about the infractions, all the way to Paul Moore, the vice president for university advancement and student affairs, but a university investigation determined that her claims were groundless.

Lambert worked for the university from 1978-82 and again from 1988 until she left her office manager position in August 1997. Lambert charged that the hostile work environment left her “emotionally distressed and physically ill.” Moore wouldn’t transfer her and instead “officially separated” her from her job, after which she claimed she was denied interviews and letters of recommendation. She filed suit in October 1998.

After the decision, as the defendants sat, seemingly dazed, outside the courtroom, Sheehan said she would likely move to have the verdicts set aside by the judge, at an appearance set for June 12.

“They are all heartsick over it,” Sheehan said after the trial. “They are not bad people. They are not evil people.” The defendants declined to comment.

One juror, an elderly Chico man who didn’t want to give his name, said outside the courthouse that he felt the university should pay the judgments, because it can best afford it. He also said Lambert should have gotten her job back. “I think they teamed against her,” he said.

In a prepared statement, Chico State President Manuel Esteban wrote that he was “surprised and disheartened by the jury’s decision in this case.” He said the university is considering an appeal and he continues to “stand behind and support” the employee-defendants.

Casagranda responded that the university "wasted" the public’s money defending its employees’ actions, and, rather than end "corruption," Chico State leaders have engaged in a cover-up.