Back on March 21, 2013, this blog critically discussed a Michigan Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA) claim, Furhr v Trinity Health Corp., (2013), where the Court of Appeals reversed a jury verdict in favor of a former employee who had filed a lawsuit against her employer. Procedurally, reversing a jury verdict is not normally expected. But what we questioned was the heightened standard the Court essentially imposed on whistleblowing employees.
The Michigan Supreme Court apparently agreed with our concerns: Last week in a separate Whistleblower Protection claim,Whitman v City of Burton, it essentially rejected the reasoning relied upon in the Furhr decision in reversing (yet another) jury verdict in favor of a plaintiff's Whistleblower Protection Claim. Specifically, the Michigan Supreme Court agreed with a number of points we raised in our prior post, "Employees and Sainthood - Does Michigan's Whistleblower Protection Require Both?," (It is good for the confidence to have the Supreme Court agree with you).
Factual Background of the Whistleblower's Claim
The plaintiff employee was employed by the defendant City as police chief until 2007 when the co-defendant (the Mayor) did not reappoint him. Plaintiff sued under the WPA, claiming that the Mayor's decision not to reappoint him was prompted by plaintiff's repeated complaints to the Mayor and city attorney, which included complaints that the City's refusal to pay his previously accumulated unused sick time and unused personal leave time would violate a City ordinance. In other words the plaintiff employee undisputably based - in part - his whistleblower claim on alleged violations concerning his how financial interests.
Procedural Background and Dismissal of the Whistleblower Protection Claim
At trial, the jury found plaintiff engaged in protected conduct that made a difference in the Mayor's decision not to reappoint him as police chief, and awarded the plaintiff damages.
The Court of Appeals reversed with the majority holding that plaintiff's claim was not actionable under the WPA because plaintiff was motivated by self-interest in engaging in protected activity under the WPA, rather than promoting the public good:
[P]laintiff clearly intended to advance his own financial interests. He did not pursue the matter to inform the public on a matter of public concern.
The Supreme Court Reverses: No Statutory Requirement as to Whistleblowing Employees' Intent or to be Free of Self-interested Motivations.
The Michigan Supreme Court curtly rejected the rationale of the Court of Appeals to focus on the perceived self-interested motivation of the plaintiff employee. Specifically, the Michigan Supreme Court noted that nowhere in the WPA (MCL 15.362) is an employee's "primary motivation" addressed and there is nothing in the statute's "plain language [to] suggest or imply that any motivation must be proved as a prerequisite for bringing a claim."
Further, the Act simply did not require that an employee's protected conduct must be motivated by a "desire to inform the public on matters of public concern" as a prerequisite for bringing a claim. Accordingly, the court reversed the Court of Appeals judgment and remanded to the Court of Appeals for consideration of all remaining issues on which that court did not formally rule, including whether the causation element of MCL 15.362 was met.
This is actually the second week in a row in which a favorable decision involving Michigan's Whistleblower Protection Act has been issued.
And while employers are not likely to rejoice over either decision, the Michigan Supreme Court "got it right" in stepping in and reversing in the Whitman case because there simply was not any statutorily basis for courts to impose the heightened standard applied by the lower court. This is because there is no "primary motivation" or '"desire to inform the public" requirement contained in the express language of the WPA. As such there is simply no statutory basis for imposing a motivation requirement in the WPA and the Michigan Supreme Court was not about to create a judicially imposed motivational requirement.
For more information about Michigan's wistleblower protection statute or other Michigan employment law questions, contact employment attorney Jason Shinn who works with businesses to comply with state and federal employment law and individuals protected by those employment law statutes.