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Published: Monday, 11/23/2009

Family leave act cited in case linked to adoption

(RALIEIGH) NEWS & OBSERVER
Jim Dotson hugs his daughter, Aselya Dotson, 7, outside their home. Pfizer, for whom Mr. Dotson worked, fired Mr. Dotson days after he adopted Aselya. Jim Dotson hugs his daughter, Aselya Dotson, 7, outside their home. Pfizer, for whom Mr. Dotson worked, fired Mr. Dotson days after he adopted Aselya.
TED RICHARDSON / McT Enlarge

RALEIGH, N.C. - Jim Dotson spent six years seeking the truth, not only from his employer whom 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 Mr. 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 New York-based pharmaceutical company, Mr. 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 fired because he gave the Russian orphanage 24 rounds of pediatric Zithromax, an antibiotic. 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, Mr. Dotson sued the drug maker under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.

The suit's outcome marks one of the few times an individual prevailed over a multimillion-dollar pharmaceutical firm; Pfizer is No. 48 in the Fortune 500.

And it puts companies on notice: The burden lies with them to understand and apply family medical leave.

Pfizer did not return repeated e-mails and telephone calls.

Although Mr. Dotson has not received his award, $662,858 plus attorney fees, he and his wife, Ann, are planning an adoption celebration they had hoped to have when they brought Aselya home. She recently turned 7.

The Dotsons wed in 1986. They decided to adopt and in 2003 learned they had been matched with a girl born in Russia several weeks premature and suffering from respiratory infections.

Elated, Mr. Dotson told his boss and co-workers of his pending trip to Russia and mentioned he might want to take some Zithromax samples to give to the orphanage doctor so he could better treat his future daughter and other children. No one raised concerns, Mr. Dotson said.

Five days after arriving home, he was asked to show up for a meeting in Charlotte, despite having asked for time off to be with his daughter, as e-mails show. He was being fired, he was told, because he used Pfizer resources for personal gain.

To sue, the Dotsons had to sell their house and cars and dig deep into savings.

Mr. Dotson's lawyer had a strategy. The Family Medical Leave Act provides 12 weeks of unpaid job-protected leave, for, among other things, adoption of a child.

More than two years after the firing, the case came up for trial. Pfizer had made no credible attempts to settle. It took the jury three hours to find Pfizer liable.



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