The Michigan Supreme Court ruled for a Saginaw nurse who filed a wrongful discharge claim alleging he was fired in violation of public policy. As we previously noted, this case raised a question of whether Michigan’s Whistleblowers’ Protection Act was the former employee’s exclusive remedy.
In sum, Mr. Landin was terminated from his job at HealthSource Saginaw after complaining that a co-worker’s negligence resulted in a patient dying in 2006. He sued claiming this firing was in violation of Michigan’s public policy as outlined in Michigan’s Public Health Code. That code prohibits a health facility from discharging an employee who in good faith reports the malpractice of a health professional. Landin did not file a claim under Michigan’s Whistleblower Protection Act.
The jury awarded him $1.2 million, which was affirmed on appeal. On April 3, 2015, the Michigan Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. And on November 4, 2015, the Court heard oral arguments from attorneys for HealthSource and Mr. Landin. However, on Nov. 13, 2015, the Supreme Court issued a one-page order vacating its 4/3/2015 decision to hear the case and consider the Michigan Court of Appeals’ June 2014 ruling (See order, Landin v HealthSource, 11-13-2015). The Michigan Supreme Court’s order provided little insight into its reasoning, noting only that the Court was “… no longer persuaded that the questions presented should be reviewed by this Court.” This means that the case is now over, and the $1.2 million jury verdict for the terminated employee will stand.
In our prior post on this case, we stopped short of making a prediction about what the Michigan Supreme Court would do, but we explained why we believed the decision eventually reached by the Michigan Supreme Court was the right result:
- The Michigan’s Whistleblower Protection Act’s (WPA) was intended to protect employees who reported or were about to report certain categories of wrongdoing on the part of an employer, but those protections can be far from straightforward with respect to meeting the statutory elements for WPA protections; and
- The HealthSource case illustrates, protections under the WPA can easily be eviscerated where an employer terminates the employee before he or she has a chance to report a violation.
One legal cliche goes that “bad facts” make “bad law.” From the employer’s perspective, this case presented horrendously “bad facts,” i.e., negligence in patient care that was believed to have resulted in a patient dying. But this is one situation where you can’t argue that these facts led to “bad law.”
Otherwise, the Michigan Supreme Court would have essentially created an insurmountable hurdle for wrongful terminations involving public policy violations. In other words, if the Michigan Supreme Court was not going to recognize a wrongful termination in violation of public policy where an employee reports on negligent patient care that resulted in a patient dying, what would be left?
However, what this does mean for employers is that a statutory remedy, here Michigan’s Whistleblower Protection Act, is not an employee’s only remedy as argued by HealthSource. This could also mean that lurking behind every statutory claim, e.g., Michigan Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights, Americans with Disabilities Act, etc. is a violation of public policy. Accordingly, employers and their human resource departments will need to expand their scope in evaluating employee discipline beyond compliance with the applicable employment laws and regulations and consider other sources that may give rise to a violation of public policy (for a summary of such sources, see our prior discussion here).
For more information about this case or Whistleblower Protections under Michigan law, contact attorney Jason Shinn. He has practiced in the area of federal and Michigan employment law, including investigating and responding to whistleblower claims, since 2001.