Former UBS employee wins court ruling that bolsters whistleblower protections

HARTFORD, Conn. — Richard Trusz, a former UBS employee in Hartford who sued after he was fired in 2008, won a victory at the State Supreme Court Monday.

The court, in a unanimous decision, ruled that employees who make arguments at work about matters of public concern are protected by state law against retaliation — with stronger protections than federal laws provide.

Trusz, now 59, lost his managing director job at UBS Realty Investors in Hartford in the summer of 2008 after months protesting overvaluation of commercial real estate in UBS funds, court filings show.

He sued UBS in federal court in February 2009, claiming retaliation in part for his internal and external whistleblowing — a case that has still not been decided. He asked to be reinstated with back pay, interest, attorney’s fees and monetary damages.

Trusz said Monday in an interview that he has not found another job in the last seven years.

The state Supreme Court case, which had arguments in March, was about one element of the case — UBS’s claim that there is no protection under state law for speech that’s part of an employee’s official duties. Trusz had complained internally that UBS was deceiving its clients as the market began to slide; it was his job to determine the value of malls and other commercial properties.

UBS reviewed the valuations that Trusz said were mistaken and concluded that the errors were not material to the funds’ performance and did not warrant disclosures to clients. The company offered to give him a copy of the internal review but insisted he sign a confidentiality agreement, preventing him from sharing it with fund investors or his lawyers, court documents show. He refused to sign.

Trusz went to the federal government in April 2008, filing a whistleblower complaint under the Sarbanes-Oxley act. That investigation was suspended because Trusz filed the federal lawsuit.

UBS has argued from the outset that Trusz’s dismissal was a business decision to outsource appraisal oversight and had nothing to do with Trusz’s conduct or because of medical absences for a heart condition, a separate claim made by Trusz.

UBS said a U.S. Supreme Court ruling from 2006 invalidated an earlier state law that protected whistleblowers. The federal court remanded that question to the state Supreme Court, which issued the ruling Monday.

Even though the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled Trusz can be protected from retaliation for speaking up about the valuation issue, he still has to convince a federal judge that he was fired because of his protests (or because of his heart condition). His case will return to Judge Jeffrey Meyer’s federal courtroom in New Haven.

UBS Spokeswoman Karina Byrne, when asked if UBS would now be open to settling the case, reiterated a statement the company issued in March: “UBS believes that Mr. Trusz’s claims are wholly without merit, and the firm did not improperly act against him. We will continue to defend ourselves vigorously in this matter.”

Todd Steigman, who represents Trusz, said he couldn’t say whether UBS would become more likely to settle now.

(c)2015 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

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