Shortly before Christmas of 2017, Dr. Lisa Menninger’s boss at a laboratory services company broached the possibility of her making presentations to pharmaceutical firms and socializing with prospective clients. A couple of weeks later, she wrote him an email revealing something “difficult for me to discuss.”
Menninger, who lived in Dighton and remotely managed labs for the North Carolina-based firm PPD, said she had struggled all her life with anxiety, including social anxiety disorder and panic attacks, for which she took medication. A more visible role would be difficult, she said in the email, but she was open to discussing it.
What happened next became the subject of an employment discrimination and retaliation lawsuit that Menninger filed in 2019 against PPD, which was acquired by Massachusetts-based Thermo Fisher Scientific two years later.
Instead of providing the accommodations she requested for her disability, Menninger alleged, PPD drove her out of the company in violation of the 1990 federal Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws that protect workers. The ADA requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for qualified workers with a disability so they can perform the essential tasks of a job.
Earlier this year, a federal jury in Boston awarded Menninger $24 million in compensatory and punitive damages. On Nov. 1, the trial judge rejected a request by the Thermo Fisher subsidiary to toss the verdict or reduce the award, which the company called “grossly excessive.”
US District Court Judge Leo T. Sorokin acknowledged that the sum was “remarkable” but said he had no reason to question it.
“The findings and conclusions the jury reached are unassailable,” he wrote in a strongly worded 24-page decision. “Nothing that occurred, in the Court’s view, warrants a new trial.” He added, “The award in total is large, but so is the harm PPD inflicted on Menninger.”
Sorokin said that PPD’s own witnesses at trial “provided fuel for Menninger’s theory that PPD was less concerned with honoring its legal obligations to her than it was with growing its business by pointing her toward the door.”
Menninger, a clinical pathologist who was recruited by PPD in 2015 to oversee laboratories in Kentucky, Belgium, China, and Singapore, said Monday that Sorokin’s ruling stirred up painful memories but she was “relieved that the verdict was validated by the judge.”
“I was scared to death that I might have to go through this over again, with a new trial,” said Menninger, 55, who now lives in Washougal, Wash. “That was terrifying to me.”
In a statement, Thermo Fisher said, “We strongly disagree with the jury verdict concerning alleged events arising from Dr. Menninger’s employment with PPD in 2018 and plan to appeal the ruling” to the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.
Menninger began working at PPD, a contract firm that helps drug companies run clinical trials, in 2015 at its laboratory in Highland Heights, Ky. But she moved with her family to Dighton in 2017 for personal reasons and began working remotely. She received positive annual job reviews in 2016 and 2017, according to her suit.
In December 2017, her supervisor told Menninger he was considering changing her role to make it more visible, according to the complaint. “He did not specify what he had in mind but suggested that it would include increased client visits, social interactions, and presentations,” said the complaint.
On Jan. 11 of the following year, Menninger sent the email disclosing her anxiety issues. She said she was “particularly affected by social interactions, which often cause panic attacks.”
“Some of the new tasks you’ve suggested will be difficult in light of my disability,” she wrote. Nonetheless, she said, she was “open to discussing whatever ideas you have for my role” and added that “I’m confident we can work through this together.”
She also provided documentation from Dr. Marianna Kessimian, a psychiatrist affiliated with Brown University who treated her. The psychiatrist recommended that “any social interaction or public speaking [related] to her role be minimized to the extent possible.”
If Menninger had to make speeches, Kessimian proposed having another PPD employee present the information after Menninger prepared it, according to a pretrial summary filed in court by the company. The psychiatrist requested that Menninger be excused from meetings focused on generating more business, work-related meals, and social interactions, PPD said.
PPD said it could accommodate some of Menninger’s requests but others were “central to Dr. Menninger’s role and critical to the needs of the business,” according to the firm’s account in court documents.
Following the requests for accommodations, said Menninger’s lawyer, Patrick J. Hannon, of Boston, the company retaliated against her by blaming her for routine errors that happen “every day in every lab.” Menninger said the situation caused her anxiety to spike.
In June of 2018, she took a medical leave, during which she received psychiatric treatment at Butler Hospital in Providence for multiple panic attacks a day, major depressive disorder, suicidal thoughts, and post-traumatic stress disorder, she told the Globe. She said the company terminated her in February 2019.
At the end of a 10-day trial, the jury awarded her $24 million, including $10 million in punitive damages.
Shannon Liss-Riordan, a prominent Boston labor lawyer who was not involved in the case, said the verdict “should be a warning to employers to be cognizant of employees’ rights.”
“If an employee asks for a reasonable accommodation, the employer should take it seriously,” Liss-Riordan said. “Retaliating against an employee who has requested an accommodation could get an employer in a lot of hot water.”
Alicia J. Samolis, a Providence-based lawyer who represents employers in labor disputes, said she was “very, very surprised by the verdict” because she felt PPD tried to provide Menninger with reasonable accommodations.
“You’re talking about an executive-level leader, and the doctor and her are saying things like instead of [Menninger] giving presentations to clients, she’d prepare the slides and someone else would present it,” said Samolis. “It does seem a little bit unreasonable on its face.”
Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at email@example.com.