Court reaffirms that WPA protects employees who act on "suspected" violations of law
Barbara Pace worked for Siren Eaton Shelter, Inc., helping domestic violence victims and the homeless in Eaton County. She became convinced that certain grant money was being used to make unauthorized purchases. She reported her suspicions up the "chain of command" and her diligence got her fired. The employer claimed that she was filed because she acted out violently in response to a disciplinary meeting. She filed a Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA) lawsuit.
The trial judge summarily dismissed her claim, ruling that she was appropriately fired as a matter of unrelated discipline, despite the fact that there was directly contradictory evidence from Pace, her supervisor and a co-worker with regard to the disciplinary meeting and Pace's response. The trial judge ruled that Pace's only support for a WPA violation was the "temporal relationship" between her whistleblowing and her firing, and it concluded that the WPA did not protect her from retaliation for reporting a potential future violation.
The Court of Appeals reversed this summary disposition and returned the case for further development. The higher court judges pointed out that not only was there contradictory evidence about the employer's pretextual firing; there was also evidence in the record that corroborated Pace's suspicion about a supervisor using grant money to purchase her daughter a stove. The Court held that reporting an anticipated violation of the law is protected activity under the WPA, and that an employee may sue under the act if he or she "has a good faith and reasonable belief that a violation of the law has either already occurred or is being actively planned."