Briley v. City of W. Covina, 66 Cal. App. 5th 119 (2021)

Jason Briley worked for the City of West Covina as a deputy fire marshal. During his employment, Briley complained that various city officials, including his former supervisor, had ignored his reports of safety issues and engaged in misconduct. The city investigated Briley’s complaints and concluded they were unfounded, but while that investigation was still pending, the city commissioned a second investigation of allegations that Briley had repeatedly engaged in misconduct and unprofessional behavior. At the conclusion of the second investigation, Briley’s employment was terminated. In this lawsuit, Briley alleged whistleblower retaliation under Cal. Lab. Code § 1102.5. At trial, the jury awarded Briley over $500,000 in lost wages, $2 million in past emotional distress damages and $1.5 million in future emotional distress damages – though Briley’s attorney had asked the jury to award only $1.5 million in past and $1.5 million in future emotional distress damages.

In this opinion, the Court of Appeal held that “the jury’s total award of $3.5 million in noneconomic damages is shockingly disproportionate to the evidence of Briley’s harm and cannot stand.” Although Briley testified that the termination was “pretty devastating” and that he had had some “sleep-related issues,” there was no evidence that any of the problems Briley described was particularly severe. The Court held that $1,700 per day for past emotional distress damages was excessive and determined that Briley’s demeanor on the witness stand (he cried) may have resulted in passion rather than measured judgment on the part of the jury. Further, the Court held that the $1.5 million award of future noneconomic damages “stands on even shakier ground” because the $500,000 in economic damages the jury awarded should have eliminated any remaining financial concerns tied to his termination and “also vindicated Briley and counteracted any false or unfair allegations against him.” The Court also determined that Briley’s counsel’s “personal attack” on the city’s counsel (calling him a liar) shortly before the jury began its deliberations may have prejudiced the jury against the city. The Court vacated the damages award and remanded the case for a new trial unless Briley accepted a reduction of the awards to $1 million in past emotional distress damages and $100,000 in future emotional distress damages (i.e., a total reduction of $2.4 million).