RALEIGH — Jim Dotson spent the past six years seeking the truth, not only from his employer who he charged wrongly fired him, but for himself and his family.
In October, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his former employer's appeal, handing Dotson a victory even as it cost him his career, his home and most of his life savings.
Once a fast-rising division salesman for Pfizer, a pharmaceutical company based in New York, Dotson was fired in 2003. The firing came just days after he and his wife, Ann, returned to Raleigh from Russia with a 13-month-old adopted baby girl with chronic upper respiratory infections.
Pfizer claimed he was terminated because Dotson gave the Russian orphanage 24rounds of pediatric Zithromax, an anti biotic used to clear up ear and respiratory infections. The exchange, Pfizer argued, put the company at risk by giving the appearance of "quid pro quo," essentially a bribe for the baby.
Stunned by the charges, Dotson sued the drug maker under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.
"This is a guy who rose through the ranks, moved for the company eight times, won every sales award there was, was a flag-waving, true blue Pfizer company man," said Dotson's attorney Bill Barrett of Williams Mullen in Raleigh. "He couldn't believe the injustice of this."
The suit's outcome will also go down as one of the few instances in which an individual prevailed over a multimillion dollar pharmaceutical company - Pfizer was listed as No. 48 on the Fortune 500.
And it puts companies on notice: The burden lies with them to understand and apply family medical leave.
"It's pretty unusual for an employer to get hit with this kind of verdict," said Brian Clarke, a Charlotte lawyer who heads the N.C. Bar Association's labor and employment section.
Pfizer did not return repeated e-mail messages and telephone calls.
Although Dotson has not yet received his award, $662,858 plus attorney fees, he and his wife are planning an adoption celebration party they had hoped to have when they brought Aselya (ah-SEEL-ya) home from Russia.
Their brown-eyed girl recently turned 7. She is an intelligent and affectionate first-grader at Endeavor Charter School.
Dotson is now realizing that his real victory lies with her and the blessings she has brought him.
The job owned him
Jim and Ann Dotson met as undergraduates at UNC-Chapel Hill, married in 1986 and began a life together that resembled the best of the American dream.
After a brief stint with Procter & Gamble, Dotson took a job with Pfizer and progressed quickly through the sales-management ranks. Despite repeated moves - the Dotsons lived in Atlanta, Washington, New York and Raleigh - they raised three children, with Ann staying home and Jim selling Pfizer drugs such as the antibiotic Zithromax and the antidepressant Zoloft.
Jim made a handsome living, earning $250,000 a year before bonuses. He had stock options, a retirement annuity, a company car, a top-of-the-line computer.
The one thing he didn't have was time with his children.
"I was not able to be involved in anything outside of Pfizer," Dotson said. "It was my life."
Ann put it more bluntly: His job had too much of him.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, pushed the Dotsons to re-evaluate their choices.
The family was living five miles from the site of the Pentagon strike, and they decided it was time to move back to Raleigh.
Pfizer allowed Dotson to keep his salary and to telecommute.
In 2002, the Dotsons bought a 6,500-square-foot house in the Swan Mill section of North Raleigh. Pfizer set him up with satellite con ferencing equipment, a copier, fax and scanner.
But the Dotsons also decided to adopt a baby, feeling that God had blessed them with so much, it was time for them to bless someone less fortunate.
They settled on a McLean, Va., adoption agency working in Russia. Jim took the lead with the adoption, filling out countless documents and having them notarized.
In August 2003, the couple learned they had been matched with a girl born several weeks prematurely and suffering from respiratory infections.
Elated, Dotson told his boss and co-workers of his approaching trip to Russia and mentioned that he might want to take some samples of Zithromax to give to the orphanage doctor so he could better treat his future daughter and other children. No one raised any concerns, Dotson said. In fact, he got overwhelming support, as his co-workers later testified.
Wanting to steer clear of Russian customs agents, Dotson even typed a letter on Pfizer letterhead saying he was bringing a "gift" of Zithromax for "humanitarian aid."
"I dotted my I's and crossed my T's," Dotson said.
Pfizer was going through a merger with Pharmacia, and his boss cut him no slack, Dotson said. He took his laptop with him to Russia and worked at Internet cafes. Dotson didn't think much of it. He had been with the company for nearly 15years, and he would weather the storm.
His family was now complete. He couldn't wait to introduce Aselya to her siblings back home.
Adoption altered things
But the adoption changed the dynamics at work. Five days after arriving home Dotson was asked to show up for an overnight meeting in Charlotte, despite having asked for the time off to be with his daughter, as e-mail correspondence shows.
Two weeks after gaining custody of Aselya, Dotson was called to a meeting at a Raleigh hotel. He was being fired, he was told, because he used Pfizer resources for personal gain.
Company executives stripped him of his laptop and his company car. Shocked and confused, he called his pastor and asked him to drive him home.
"I couldn't sleep for two weeks," Dotson said.
After meeting with a lawyer, Dotson made the eventful decision to sue.
In looking back he said he did so for the sake of his children. He wanted to teach them that "life is not fair, but how we choose to respond is critical."
He was also soul-searching. The loss of his job forced him to see what was really important.
The decision meant the Dotsons had to sell their house and new cars and dig deep into their savings. They moved their possessions into storage, rented a small home, simplified their lifestyles and kept to a strict budget.
In the meantime, Pfizer filed a barrage of motions. First, the company took exception to his lawyer, then Pfizer argued that it had too few North Carolina employees to comply with federal laws. Dotson and his lawyers understood that the big company would fight hard to drain him of his money, if not his patience. But Dotson's lawyer had a strategy. The Family Medical Leave Act provides 12 weeks of unpaid job-protected leave, for, among other things, the adoption of a child. Dotson had documented e-mail messages showing his bosses were hostile to his requests for time off for the adoption.
Dotson's lawyers, Bill Barrett and co-counsel Josh Krasner, knew he was entitled to those protections, regardless of whether he had asked for them.
More than two years after Dotson's dismissal, the case came up for trial . Pfizer had made no credible attempts to settle, Barrett said.
Over the course of the eight-day federal trial before Judge Earl Britt, Dotson's lawyers argued that Pfizer's stated reason for Dotson's firing - the distribution of the antibiotic samples - was a pretext. They showed he obtained the samples with the company's knowledge, that there was no written policy prohibiting the sample distribution, and that no other employee had been disciplined for such action. Coincidentally, they added, Pfizer trusted Dotson with several cases of Viagra samples. No one ever asked for those.
Instead, Barrett and Krasner argued that Pfizer interfered with Dotson's right to take family medical leave, denied him the opportunity to stay home with his daughter and retaliated against him.
It took the jury three hours to find Pfizer liable for firing Dotson.
"The asserted reasons for firing him were not believed by the jury, or by Mr. Dotson's co-workers," Barrett said. "They were not believed by Mr. Dotson, and finally, they were not believable."
The fight continues
Dotson's victory was short-lived. Pfizer appealed the decision to the 4th District Court of Appeals. In March 2009, the appeals court rejected Pfizer's claims and affirmed the trial court's verdict, saying the burden is on the employer, not the employee, to understand and apply the family leave protections.
Pfizer would not quit. It appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, dragging out the case seven more months.
Meanwhile Dotson's children were teaching him lessons, he's certain, that he would never have learned otherwise. While they prayed nightly that their father would find a job, they told him they hoped it wouldn't be a high-paying one, because, as son Hunter said, "Money gets in the way of what's best for us."
On Oct. 5, Dotson's lawyer called with the good news: The Supreme Court had declined to review the case, and the legal wrangling was over. He had won. His six-year ordeal was over.
But Dotson prefers to see his victory from a personal rather than a legal angle. He's spending more time at home, helping his eldest, Hillary, 17, apply for college. He's there to help Bennett, 15, and Hunter, 13, with their homework. Last week, he showed up as the "mystery reader" at Aselya's first-grade classroom where he read the book "You Are Special" to the students.
"I didn't realize what I was missing before," said Dotson, who now works as an independent consultant helping companies and church groups with leadership training and development.
The Dotsons plan to use a substantial part of their award to start a nonprofit organization to provide financial assistance to other families considering foreign adoption.
They plan to call it,"Aselya's Blessing."
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