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Assessor who did not dispute supervisor's illegal instruction is fired; cannot seek legal protection

Julie Geldhof worked for Bruce Township in Macomb County for 36 years.  As the County Assessor, her final position, she sought her supervisor's permission to add to the tax rolls a pole barn on property owned by another Township employee and discovered by a Geographic Information System arial photograph. The Supervisor instructed her to add the structure only to the equalization rolls but not to the tax rolls.  The Township Clerk agreed with the Supervisor and Plaintiff allowed the issue to die.

When a new Supervisor was elected, she reported this issue to him.  The new supervisor immediately sought her dismissal for "certifying false tax rolls."  As an aside, the new supervisor, James Tignanelli, had previously disputed Ms. Geldhof's assessment of his property. The Township Board voted to dismiss Geldhof and she filed a Whistleblower Protection Act claim, arguing that her dismissal was in retaliation for her reporting the prior Supervisor's illegal policy.

The Circuit Judge dismissed Geldhof's claim, suggesting that she was merely reporting her own illegal conduct and therefore, the circumstances did not warrant WPA protection.  The Court of Appeals overturned this holding, and agreed with Geldhof that she was engaged in "protected activity."  Incredibly, however, the Court then held that since Geldhof made her report to Tignanelli in 2009 after he was elected but before he was sworn in, she was not entitled to whistleblower protection because he was not yet her supervisor. 

The higher court then held that Geldhof's prior complaint/report, in 2005, was also protected activity, but that there wasn't adequate proof of a causal connection between her reports and her termination, even though Tignanelli expressly used her (self-reported) flaw in the above tax roll as the basis for firing her.

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