Employees fired after deposition "coaching" can maintain Whistleblower Claim
Raymond Tackett and Thomas McGregor successfully appealed the dismissal of their wrongful discharge and whistleblower claims against Group Five Management Company. Group Five was apparently being sued because of an electrical fire that was allegedly caused by negligence. Tackett and McGregor were summoned to a "deposition preparation" meeting, where they were told the suit could put the company out of business and eliminate their jobs. They were then told that they "did not need to know or remember anything." When they indicated that they would be truthful and would not lie under oath, they were both subsequently fired.The two men filed a Whistleblower retaliation claim, however, the Wayne County Circuit Judge dismissed their claims, based on a faulty interpretation of the Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA). The Defendant argued that the WPA did not apply to the two mens' cases because they were fired before anyone had noticed their depositions, because they were acting out of personal vindictiveness and not in response to a WPA-protected activity; and because there was no direct evidence that they were fired in retaliation for their failure to cooperate with attempts to "coach" or sanitize their testimony.
On appeal, the three judge panel unanimously over-turned the lower court decision and sent the cases back to be decided by the jury. While the high court held that the timing of Defendant's termination decision was not "direct" evidence of retaliation; when combined with the other factual circumstances documented by the two Plaintiffs, there was ample circumstantial evidence to send the case to trial. The Court noted that there was a conflict in testimony regarding the reasons offered for the Plaintiffs' discharge and corroborating evidence circumstantially supporting an illegal motive. Surprisingly, it did not express outrage at the Defendant's alleged attempt to undermine the litigation process through "coaching" and intimidation.