Federal laws protect whistleblowers from retaliation because the government wants people to report fraud in government contracts. When Weihua Huang, a principal investigator on a National Institutes of Health (NIH) research grant at the University of Virginia, discovered unauthorized changes that diverted grant money to unrelated salaries and expenses, he reported it to the head of UVa’s Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences. Soon thereafter, he was told his employment contract wouldn’t be renewed. Huang sued for False Claims Act retaliation and won a jury verdict of $159,915 in lost wages plus $500,000 in compensatory emotional-distress damages. Not surprisingly, the defendants (Huang’s supervisor Dr. Ming D. Li, and Department Chair Dr. Bankole A. Johnson) asked the court to reduce the damages award as excessive.
Specifically, the defendants invoked a process known as remittitur, asking Judge Norman K. Moon to either reduce the emotional distress damages to $10,000, or order a new trial. They pointed out that the only evidence of emotional distress was Huang’s own unsupported testimony. There was no evidence, for example, of medical treatment or other corroborating evidence. They argued that where the injury consists of emotional distress, the Fourth Circuit usually finds six-figure damages awards excessive when not supported by medical evidence.
A jury’s compensatory damages award will be considered excessive if it is “against the clear weight of the evidence or based on evidence which is false.” Under Rule 59(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, if a plaintiff won’t accept a trial court’s reduction of an excessive jury award, the court can order a new trial.
The court agreed with the defendants, but only up to a point. The court agreed that six-figure awards for emotional distress are often found to be excessive, but noted that there is no bright line test prohibiting such awards per se. The cases are very fact-specific. What is important is that the damages award be proportional to the plaintiff’s injury. In theory, emotional distress damages can be proved solely through a plaintiff’s self-serving testimony, but conclusory statements are not enough. If a plaintiff is going to rely solely on his own testimony, he must reasonably and sufficiently explain the circumstances of his distress.
To determine whether a jury award of emotional-distress damages is excessive, courts consider factors such as the extent to which medical, psychiatric, or psychological treatment was sought or received, the degree of mental distress suffered, the factual context, whether there is evidence to corroborate the plaintiff’s testimony, the nexus between the defendant’s conduct and the emotional distress, the existence of mitigating circumstances, loss of income, and whether any physical injuries were manifested. Perhaps most importantly, courts look to past awards based on similar evidence to use as a guideline.
Circumstances that support higher awards include insidious bad behavior by the defendants, serious and/or long term or permanent physical injuries to plaintiffs, physical symptoms of stress, injuries requiring significant medical or psychological treatment or medication, terminations leading to prolonged unemployment, and unlawful terminations. These are not specifically required but the more objective verification of emotional distress a plaintiff offers, the higher the award is likely to be and the more likely the verdict will be upheld by the court.
In this particular case, Judge Moon concluded that Huang’s $500,000 award was excessive. It was more than three times the largest award in a similar Fourth Circuit case and it wasn’t proportional to Huang’s injuries. In short, the court found the award to be against the weight of the evidence. Huang presented no medical evidence of his emotional distress and offered no testimony regarding any medical, psychiatric or psychological treatment. Still, Judge Moon found his testimony supported a substantial award.
This was Huang’s first NIH grant as principal investigator. It represented a major professional and personal accomplishment. The retaliation ended his academic career at UVa and the grant failed. This made it harder for him to receive other NIH grants, thereby limiting his career options. He looked for other jobs and couldn’t even get interviews. He lost fifty pounds and suffered sleep disruption. This testimony was specific as to the type and extent of his physical and mental distress. He also testified that losing his job strained his marriage and his wife had to find a job to support him.
The unlawfulness of Huang’s termination also supported a larger award. He testified to specific physical symptoms, lost income, and changes in conduct. Taking all this into account, Judge Moon reduced the award to $100,000 which, he concluded, would adequately compensate Huang for his emotional harm while not being disproportionate to the award for back pay.