A former employee of a St. Louis County dental office will receive both actual and punitive damages from her former employer after a bench trial involving accusations she was terminated in violation of public policy.
“I kept saying all along that this was a textbook case of whistleblowing and retaliation,” said Bridget Halquist of Sher Corwin Winters, who represented Lisa Eichorn in the case.
Eichorn, an Illinois dental assistant, claimed in her petition that she discovered her employer, Dr. Martin Buchheit of Koch Park Dental, had not been making contributions to her employee retirement account for several months in mid-2013 despite withholding wages for that purpose.
After reporting the matter to her supervisor, Eichorn voiced further concerns at a staff meeting held in late October. According to Eichorn’s petition, Buchheit became “irate” and suspended her for three days.
“She came back the next day to ask why she had been suspended when she wasn’t even the one who had done anything wrong,” Halquist said. “He became irate again and suspended her indefinitely.”
Halquist said Eichorn reported the issue to the Department of Labor, which contacted Buchheit and opened an investigation on Oct. 30. The following day Eichorn was told she was not allowed in the office, and on Nov. 1, she received her last paycheck — marked “FINAL” — in the mail, her attorney said.
Halquist said the dentist argued that he believed Eichorn already had resigned her position.
“When she was told she was suspended indefinitely, they claim that because she went back to her cubbyhole and grabbed a few items that Dr. Buchheit assumed that she quit,” she said.
However, Halquist said logs made by the investigators showed that the defendant had made statements indicating that he still considered her to be employed at that time.
Halquist said the case was tried under 2013 laws, making it tougher than it might have been under the current statute.
“There was an amendment to the whistleblowing laws in Missouri, which was in August of 2017,” she said. “Prior to that it was just common law, and so there were certain elements we had to meet to show there was a violation of Missouri common law.”
Judge Richard M. Stewart ruled in favor of the plaintiff, awarding $14,599 plus an additional $10,000 in punitive damages.
“The reason the damages weren’t very high was because Lisa found a job almost immediately,” Halquist said, noting that the new job paid less than Eichorn’s old one.
Halquist added that it is unusual to receive punitive damages in a case — especially in a bench trial.
“To get it from a judge and not a jury was, I thought, our biggest victory,” she said.
Mary Ann Weems and Eric Tuncil of the Law Office of Mary Ann Weems were listed as representing the defendant. They did not respond to a request for comment.
Venue: St. Louis County Circuit Court
Case Number/Date: 14SL-CC00512/Dec. 6, 2018
Judge: Richard Stewart
Last Pretrial Demand: $27,500
Last Pretrial Offer: $7,500
Caption: Lisa Eichorn v. Martin L. Buchheit dba Koch Park Dental
Plaintiff’s Attorneys: Bridget L. Halquist, Sher Corwin Winters, St. Louis
Defendant’s Attorneys: Mary Ann Weems and Eric Tuncil, Law Offices of Mary Ann Weems, St. Louis