A Wake County jury awarded a former employee of the Person/Caswell District Attorney’s office $1.8 million in damages on Wednesday after she accused the state of failing to protect her after she alerted investigators about her suspicions of malfeasance in the DA’s office.
Debra Halbrook, who worked for the District Attorney’s office for nearly 20 years, was fired in January 2017 after then-District Attorney Wallace Bradsher began to believe that Halbrook was the person who had given information about an illegal hiring scheme to investigators with the SBI.
The state’s whistleblower laws prevent the state from punishing an employee for reporting concerns about possible violations of the law.
Halbrook initially filed a lawsuit against Bradsher, District Court Judge John Stultz, who was an assistant district attorney at the time, and several others in the DA’s offices in Person and Rockingham counties, alleging that she had been improperly fired from her job.
The verdict handed down Wednesday essentially found that the state, through the person of Bradsher who was the elected DA at the time, did not protect her from discovery.
In evidence presented in the trial, Halbrook said she had been told by SBI investigators that she would not be identified as the whistleblower until after indictments were handed down. But the investigation dragged on and Bradsher began to suspect Halbrook of being the SBI’s inside source before any criminal indictments were ever handed down.
The investigation that resulted from Halbrook’s conversation with SBI investigators brought guilty pleas from Rockingham County DA Craig Blitzer and a conviction against Bradsher for his part in the scheme. Bradsher and Blitzer conspired to hire each other’s wives to work in the other man’s office as a way to get around state ethics laws. According to testimony at Bradsher’s criminal trial, Blitzer’s wife Cindy, never worked for Bradsher’s office although she drew a paycheck.
Wednesday’s verdict came at the end of a week-long trial in which lawyers for Halbrook said the state’s whistleblower laws were designed to protect people like Halbrook from being punished for reporting wrongs that they learn about on the course of there work.
“The plaintiff is very happy with the results. It’s been over four years. We’re very happy the court, the jury decided to believe what she testified to at trial,” said Lee Farmer
Halbrook was awarded $600,000 in economic damages for lost wages and retirement after jurors determined there was a connection between the plaintiff’s engaging in activity protected by law and adverse employment action taken by Bradsher.
The jury also awarded Halbrook $1.2 million in non-economic damages for pain and suffering and damage to her reputation.
In the language of the law, Halbrook’s lawsuit sought what is called treble damages. That means, once the appeals process has run its course, the court will most likely triple the award sent by the jury. Halbrook also sought to have the defendants pay her legal fees. If both those claims are awarded, the case could cost the state about $6 million.
The state has 30 days to appeal the jury’s decision, but so far has not indicated that it plans to.