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Mackenzie v. Miller Brewing Co.: 1997, 1999, 2000

Corporate Deceit Or A Manager's Incompetence?, The Appeals Begin

Plaintiff: Jerold J. Mackenzie
Defendant: Miller Brewing Company and two Miller employees, Robert L. Smith and Patricia G. Best
Plaintiff Claim: Intentional misrepresentation, tortious interference with prospective contract, tortious interference with contract
Chief Lawyer for Plaintiff: Gerald P. Boyle
Chief Defense Lawyer: Frank J. Daily
Circuit Court Judge: Louise Tesmer
Appeals Court Judges: Ralph Adam Fine, Charles B. Schudson and Ted E. Wedemeyer, Jr.
Places: Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin
Date of Trial: June 27, 1997-July 15, 1997
Dates of Appeal: Oral arguments: August 18, 1999. Opinion filed: February 22, 2000
Verdict: Jury awarded Mackenzie $26.6 million: $24.5 million from Miller Brewing Co.; $1.5 million from coworker Best, and $601,500 from former supervisor Smith. Judge Tesmer set aside judgment against Best and reduced award to $24.7 million. Miller appealed the judgment to Wisconsin Court of Appeals, District I. Appeals Court reversed judgment with orders affirmed in part and reversed in part. Mackenzie has appealed to Wisconsin Supreme Court. Decision expected in 2001.

SIGNIFICANCE: This case ultimately hinged on the simple question: Do employers have the legal right to lie to employees? The Wisconsin Supreme Court has agreed to review the case, which involved a record damage award. The high court could clarify state tort law govering what obligations employers have or don't have to tell at-will employees the truth about their job status.

This case gained national attention as "The Seinfeld Case" because the plaintiff alleged in part that he was fired from Miller Brewing Company after discussing a risque episode of the television show with a female coworker. But during Jerold Mackenzie's complex five-year court battle, this aspect of the case was dropped early on. Mackenzie maintains, however, that the media frenzy surrounding the sexual harassment allegation labeled him a pervert and precluded job possibilities anywhere in the country.

In his suit, Mackenzie argued that Miller shabbily dismissed him without fairly investigating coworker Patricia Best's claim of sexual harassment. He claimed Best was fraudulent when she reported that Mackenzie's conversation about the Seinfield episode made her uncomfortable.

He also argued in his trial that Miller never told him about his 1989 demotion. Mackenzie claimed his boss lied to him about his job status. When a 1992 memo tipped him off about the secret demotion, Mackenzie claimed he was too old to find a new job, being past "marketable age." This argument became the heart of his case.

Mackenzie said that although he was unaware of his job downgrade, it prohibited him from moving up the corporate ladder. If he had known his gradelevel had been reduced, he would have left Miller at the time of the demotion. He suffered behind-the-scenes career sabotage and was summarily fired after Best's bogus sexual harassment complaint. Mackenzie argued that his firing was improper, Best was not harassed, and Miller was looking for an excuse to unfairly get rid of him.

Mackenzie v. Miller involved years of litigation, including a three-week jury trial, a 10,000-page record, more than 300 pages in briefs, national publicity, and nearly $25 million awarded in punitive damages, in part for being improperly fired. In his civil action, Mackenzie had sought damages for lost salary and benefits as well as for the salary he would have received had he become a director at Miller, his career goal. He asked for $9.2 million in compensatory damages.

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