Originally created 01/07/00

Whistle-blower's team files motion for fees



Attorneys who won a near four-year legal battle and then a courtroom victory for a Medicare fraud whistle-blower are seeking $480,000 in attorney fees from the trial losers.

Michael Haddle's legal team -- composed of Charles C. Stebbins III, C. Thompson Harley and Richard Miley -- filed a motion Tuesday in U.S. District Court where Mr. Haddle won his lawsuit against his former boss, Jeannette Garrison; her now defunct company, Healthmaster Inc.; and its former corporate legal counsel G. Peter Molloy.

Mr. Haddle filed the federal lawsuit back in February 1996, alleging he was fired in the midst of a federal prosecution of Mrs. Garrison because he assisted federal and state investigators who eventually determined she and two top executives used the company to cheat federal taxpayers out of $11.5 million in Medicare funds.

In December, a federal jury agreed with Mr. Haddle and awarded him $65,000 in damages, about the amount of salary and benefits he would have received in 1995 from Healthmaster had he not been fired before the home health care corporation was sold.

In their request for attorneys fees -- in most civil rights cases losing defendants must pay the plaintiff's attorney fees -- Mr. Haddle's attorneys noted the amount of his damages was relatively modest. But, they contended, "This case has more to do with the vindication of an important public principle than merely with private considerations."

Mr. Haddle's lawsuit was thrown out of federal court initially when the judge ruled the whistle blower had no right to sue because he was "an employee at will," a noncontract employee who can be fired for nearly any reason or no reason at all. That decision was upheld by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

But in a rare move, the U.S. Supreme Court granted Mr. Haddle's petition to appeal. In a unanimous opinion issued Dec. 14, 1998, the court ruled Mr. Haddle was entitled to his day in court. The court found that any employee who cooperates with federal investigations can be protected from retaliation and punishment.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or shodson@augustachronicle.com.