A former Walgreens employee received a $1.1 million punitive damage award for what the court found to be Walgreens' retaliation in firing him for alerting the government to the company's overbilling practices.
The False Claims Act (FCA) empowers employees to initiate legal action against wrongdoing companies for defrauding the government. However, many people who identify their employers' bad behavior fear coming forward, because they don't want to lose their jobs, face social isolation at work or endure other types of retaliation.
Both state and federal laws prohibit employers from retaliating against whistleblower employees. If an employer gets caught engaging in retaliation, the result can be punishing sanctions. To wit, a court recently ordered Walgreens to pay one of its pharmacists $1.1 million because the company retaliated against the man for blowing the whistle on illegal practices.
Calling Out Walgreens for Overbilling Medicare
Sami Mitri worked as a pharmacist at Walgreens in 2008. While providing patients with a 10-day supply of drugs, he noticed that Walgreens was billing Medicare for a 30-day supply. He reported what he believed was an oversight to his manager, who told him that it wasn't his job to report overbilling issues. Confused, Mitri continued to report the problem to management but gained no traction. Eventually, he alerted the California Department of Healthcare and Medicare. Soon afterwards, Walgreens terminated Mitri.
Debate Over the Reasons for Sam Mitri's Firing
Walgreens claimed that Mitri was fired for working 10 minutes over the end of his scheduled shift or 10 minutes before the shift to help customers; the company claimed that he abused its overtime system. Mitri counter-alleged that Walgreens terminated him for blowing the whistle on the Medicare overbilling.
After a Long Battle, Court Finds Walgreens' Conduct "Reprehensible"
In 2011, the court found for plaintiff Sam Mitri, awarding Mitri a total of $1,188,000, including $1.1 million for the retaliation claim and $88,000 for lost wages.
Walgreens appealed the decision, and the appeals court sent the case back for another trial. Walgreens managed to delay the final disposition of this case for four years. In the end, however, Sam Mitri emerged victorious.
The trial court found for the plaintiff again in December 2014 and re-imposed the $1.1 million award for whistleblower retaliation. The court also rebuked Walgreens, noting that every dollar of Medicare fraud was a dollar that would not go towards providing medical care for the disabled or elderly. The court added that Walgreen's conduct had been "reprehensible."