Federal Jury Finds Defense Contractor Liabile for Retaliation Against Whistleblowers


Denver: On June 12, a federal jury in Denver found for four former employees of Vectrus Systems Corp., a defense contractor based in Colorado Springs, following a three-week retaliation and wrongful termination trial. Attorneys from Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell LLP (WTO), in Denver, and Freeborn & Peters LLP, in Chicago, represented the plaintiffs. In addition to finding for the plaintiffs and awarding compensatory damages of $1.35 million, the jury awarded punitive damages of $400,000 against the defense contractor. Punitive damages can only be assigned if the plaintiffs demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendants had acted with malice or willful and wanton conduct.

Raymond Martin leads WTO’s employment practice. Steven M. Hartmann leads the employment group at Freeborn. Though both firms primarily represent corporations and employers, they joined forces to represent the employee plaintiffs, because the attorneys believed their clients had been the victims of blatant retaliation and had their careers largely destroyed for doing the right thing—reporting serious misconduct by certain members of the Vectrus management team.

“In 40 years practicing employment law,” said Martin, “I’ve represented plaintiffs only twice, when the situation was so egregious that helping out was essential to achieve justice. This case was the second time.”

Said Hartmann, “It is an honor and a privilege to represent these clients.”

Protecting Against Terrorism
The plaintiffs provided security investigation services at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. They were responsible for managing base access for local service providers and international third parties. In the course of their work, each of the plaintiffs found breaches in security protocol that led them to report concerns to their supervisors and the U.S. military.

The plaintiffs and their supervisors were responsible for managing data within a highly sensitive computer system used by the U.S. military and NATO to track terrorists. The plaintiffs discovered instances when data in the system had been altered clandestinely, deleting information important to maintaining the security of Bagram and potentially other military facilities from the system.

Whistleblowing and Retaliation
When the plaintiffs reported concerns to their supervisors, they were told to stand down. The plaintiffs ultimately informed U.S. military officials and cooperated in a joint investigation by military counterintelligence officers and the Air Force Office of Security Investigations, which determined that significant security protocols had been breached, resulting in the debarment and removal of eight other employees of the contractor.

Over the next two months, three of the plaintiffs were fired and two were assigned to forward operating bases—the front lines in the war in Afghanistan. Shelling at the forward operating bases was so intense, and conditions so dangerous, that field personnel called one base “Rocket City.” Prior to arriving at Bagram, none of the plaintiffs had ever received so much as a note in their files regarding poor performance or discipline. None had ever before been fired from a job, and all had prior experience serving in the U.S. Armed Forces or municipal police departments.

In trial, Vectrus represented that the three fired employees had all committed wrongdoing, which the jury rejected. The defense also represented that the remaining two employees, who had been reassigned to forward bases, had been laid off rather than constructively discharged. The jury rejected these defenses.

WTO partner and former U.S. Army Airborne Ranger John Fitzpatrick, who also tried the case, put it simply: “These men and women are patriots, nothing less. In return for their service they got fired, sent to the front lines. It was not right.”

The case is Cejka et al v. Vectrus Systems Corporation, 1:15-cv-02418-MEH (D. Colo.). The trial was presided over by Magistrate Judge Michael Hegarty of the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado.

WTO attorneys Raymond Martin, John Fitzpatrick, Kate Mercer-Lawson, and Natasha Schissler, and Freeborn attorneys Steven M. Hartmann and Terrence J. Sheahan, represented the plaintiffs.

Contact: Matt Plavnick | 303.244.0103 | plavnick@wtotrial.com

Since 2004, Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell lawyers have won more than 150 trial verdicts and complex arbitrations, and over 80 significant appeals nationwide for our clients. Established in 1998, WTO currently numbers 100 lawyers. The firm represents sophisticated clients in high-stakes civil trials, appeals, arbitrations, and related matters, including class actions, mass torts, and multidistrict litigation. For more information, visit wtotrial.com.