Appeals court awards jury $ 7.7 million in Ministry of Corrections whistleblower case

A state appeals committee overturned a $ 7.7 million jury prize that a former state Department of Corrections employee won in a whistleblower case and ordered a new trial in the civil case.

Lisa R. Easley sued the DOC for claiming she was fired for cooperating in a federal investigation into former Deputy Commissioner Lydell B. Sherrer, who pleaded guilty to soliciting bribes from employees of DOC.

The appellate court concluded that incorrectly admitted evidence undermined the jury’s verdict.

Easley, who worked for the deputy superintendent of the Alfred C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility in Burlington County, told investigators she paid Sherrer $ 12,500 in “extorted payments” from 2008, in plus paying him an additional $ 17,000 in loans that were never repaid.

Sherrer admitted to soliciting $ 69,000 in bribes from eight people and receiving a total of $ 36,500 from six of them, including Easley, in return for guaranteed continued employment with the DOC. He pleaded guilty to a single count of extortion under cover of official law and was sentenced to almost four years in prison in 2013.

As part of his conviction, Sherrer was ordered to pay Easley restitution of $ 12,500.

After cooperating with a DOC investigation into her involvement in Sherrer’s activities, Easley was charged with three disciplinary offenses, demoted and then fired in 2012. The investigation revealed that she paid Sherrer $ 7,500 for her position. deputy superintendent and had solicited bribe payments from at least two other DOC employees on Sherrer’s behalf, according to the appeal decision.

She claimed in her lawsuit that she was the victim of Sherrer’s extortion and that the dismissal was in retaliation for her cooperation in the federal investigation. Easley was made redundant months before she was eligible for full retirement benefits, according to published reports.

The jury awarded him damages in 2015, including $ 1 million for emotional distress and $ 6.5 million in punitive damages.

In appealing this result, the DOC argued that Easley was not a whistleblower because she did not come forward voluntarily and did not cooperate until after the FBI approached her and summoned to testify before a grand jury.

The DOC also argued that several pieces of evidence admitted at trial prejudiced the jury by portraying Easley as a victim of Sherrer’s actions.

These included Sherrer’s indictment, the plea agreement and sentencing judgment, as well as a letter from a federal prison warden who described Easley as a “victim” who was entitled to a compensation.

The admission of the documents “unduly strengthened the plaintiff’s position and usurped the exclusive role of the jury” in determining whether Easley was a victim or a willing participant in the scheme, the DOC argued.

The agency also challenged the admission of a lengthy audio recording of a Senate confirmation hearing for then-commissioner Gary Lanigan, which included a discussion of Sherrer.

Easley called Lanigan as a witness during the trial, and the DOC argued that the tape contained damaging hearsay statements that concerned “other alleged wrongdoing by Sherrer” that were irrelevant to this case.

The appeal panel agreed with the DOC on the evidentiary issues, reversed the decision, and ordered a new trial.

“Taken separately or collectively, the detrimental impact of the poorly admitted evidence undermined the reliability of the resulting verdict,” they wrote.

“Clearly, Ms Easley is very disappointed that after proving that she was the victim of blatant retaliation after the denunciation, the verdict was overturned on evidentiary rulings which should, at best, have been viewed as a harmless mistake, ”said his lawyer, Alan. Cherry Hill’s Schorr said in a statement: “Nonetheless, she remains convinced that she will win in the second trial.”

Schorr also criticized the “patently unreasonable delay” it took for the Appeal Division to dispose of the appeal.

“Now, almost four years later, Ms Easley has been severely affected by the passage of so much time,” he said.

Matt Gray can be reached at mgray@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on twitter @MattGraySJT. Find NJ.com on Facebook. Do you have any advice? Tell us: nj.com/tips. Get the latest updates straight to your inbox. Subscribe to NJ.com newsletters.

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