Retaliation Claim Against Delaware Law Firm Over Softball Injury Nixed

By | May 22, 2020

A judge has dismissed a lawsuit against a Delaware law firm filed by a paralegal who claims he was targeted for retaliation after being injured while playing on the law firm’s softball team and filing a workers’ compensation claim.

The judge last week granted a motion by the Morris James law firm to dismiss the complaint filed by paralegal William Weller.

Superior Court Judge Jan Jurden said alleged acts of misconduct by the law firm did not constitute adverse employment actions against Weller, and that some claims involving conduct in 2015 were barred by the passage of time.

The decision was the latest in a long-running legal battle between Weller and the Wilmington-based law firm.

A different judge ruled in 2018 that Delaware’s Industrial Accident Board erred in concluding that Weller ruptured his Achilles tendon in 2015 during the course and scope of his work for Morris James.

Weller argued that Morris James employees were pressured into playing on the firm’s softball team. The judge said participation was voluntary and there was no evidence that playing softball was a job requirement. The judge also said the IAB erred in concluding that Morris James received a substantial, direct benefit from its softball team in the way of increased productivity.

The firm said softball games were intended to boost employee health, morale and camaraderie.

After Delaware’s Supreme Court upheld the ruling that Weller was not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits, he filed another lawsuit last year claiming that he was subjected to ridicule and retaliation by partners in the law firm after he took medical leave.

Weller said one partner notified other employees of his medical leave in an email stating, “From now on no out of shape middle aged men are permitted to play softball.” Another partner noted in connection with Weller’s annual review that the amount of time he missed in 2015 for health-related reasons was an issue, the complaint alleged.

Jurden said that while the email and annual review comments may have been “unpleasant or even unprofessional,” they were not sufficient to dissuade a reasonable person from filing a workers’ compensation claim.

Weller also alleged that after Morris James successfully appealed a 2016 Industrial Accident Board decision in his favor, another law firm partner, Eric Monzo, used “trickery and deceit” in obtaining information about Weller’s litigation strategy and offering to testify on his behalf at a new IAB hearing, then providing opposite testimony.

Despite Monzo’s testimony, the IAB ruled in favor of Weller again in 2017, but a Superior Court judge overturned that decision in 2018, saying the board’s decision was legally incorrect and not supported by substantial evidence.

Jurden said Weller’s claims against Monzo involved allegations of misconduct during litigation, not of actions that were adverse to Weller’s employment.

“While plaintiff’s workers’ compensation claim might have suffered, his employment did not,” she wrote.

While granting the law firm’s motion to dismiss, the judge chastised the conduct of both sides, saying “intense personal emotions” underlying the claims and defenses had “infected” the presentation by the lawyers in their briefs.

“While it is understandable that the parties have strong personal interests, the court expects counsel to refrain from inflammatory language, which is distracting and also diminishes the effectiveness of the parties’ legal arguments,” Jurden wrote.

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