Originally created 02/17/00

Judge OKs verdict in Healthmaster case



A federal judge used the Constitution, prior cases, the facts and even Shakespeare to kill an attempt to set aside a recent jury verdict in the case of a whistle-blower and a former Augusta home-health care corporation.

In a 32-page order signed Feb. 9, U.S. District Judge Anthony Alaimo upheld a federal jury's Dec. 17 verdict in favor of Michael Haddle.

The jury found that Healthmaster Inc. founder Jeanette G. Garrison, her now-defunct company and former top executive G. Peter Molloy Jr. conspired to fire Mr. Haddle in retaliation for his cooperation with a federal investigation of crimes that cost taxpayers more than $10 million. Mr. Haddle was awarded $65,000 in damages.

As defense attorneys did at the trial, they argued to Judge Alaimo that there wasn't a conspiracy to fire Mr. Haddle for cooperating with investigators and that his 1995 termination caused no harm because he should have been fired anyway.

"Given the fact of a conspiracy, the jury was entitled to look askance at the benign explanations offered by two of the conspirators," the judge wrote. "In a conspiracy, as Lady Macbeth says, `False face must hide what the false heart doth know."'

The judge wrote that the jury had plenty of evidence to conclude there was a conspiracy to fire Mr. Haddle in retaliation for helping federal investigators.

"Thus, Garrison, the controlling shareholder of Healthmaster, Healthmaster and Molloy all had plausible reasons to fear the consequences of the government investigation of Healthmaster, an investigation in which Haddle played an important, if not crucial, role as a cooperating witness," Judge Alaimo wrote.

Mrs. Garrison and Healthmaster executives Dennis Kelly and David Suba were convicted of Medicare fraud and sent to prison. Mrs. Garrison was ordered to repay $16.5 million to the government.

The judge rejected the defense team's renewed argument about an issue taken to the U.S. Supreme Court. In December 1998, the high court ruled that even at-will employees -- those who can be legally fired for nearly any reason -- are entitled to whistle-blower protection.

And Judge Alaimo rejected the defense team's contention that there was no wrongdoing because it was actually the bankruptcy trustee -- appointed by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court to oversee Healthmaster Home Health Care -- who fired Mr. Haddle.

The trustee's reasons for firing Mr. Haddle came directly from Mr. Molloy, who deceived the trustee, the judge wrote. He scoffed at the defense team's further contention that Mr. Haddle had to be fired to protect Heathmaster from criminal prosecution.

"First, it is undisputed that Haddle was never a target of the criminal investigation of Healthmaster," Judge Alaimo wrote. "In other words, Healthmaster did not face exposure to criminal liability as a result of Haddle's conduct.

"Healthmaster, throughout this period, treated (Healthmaster Home Health Care) as a mere instrumentality, even when it was proscribed from doing so once HHHC entered bankruptcy. It is, therefore, not surprising that the jury would refuse to evaluate the decision to terminate Haddle in light of what a `prudent' corporation would do," the judge wrote.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226.