Whistleblower fired after unnecessary physical confrontation loses WPA protection
William Wielen was a refuse collection worker for the City of Bay City and apparently he made too many complaints about perceived equipment and safety violations. The City held a meeting with Wielen and a co-worker who was at fault in a truck collision with Wielen's truck. Records reflect that the co-worker was critical of Wielen, and that the supervisor informed both men that their continuing conflict was damaging morale and endangering their employment. The Co-worker was told to stop claiming Wielen was a "snitch" and told Wielen that he needed to do a better job of getting along with co-workers.Immediately after the shift following this meeting, Wielen told a co-worker to stop using a power washer on the garage floor while Wielen re-filled the hydraulic fluid in his truck. In response, the co-worker sprayed Wielen with the power washer. Wielen complained to a supervisor that this conduct was unsafe, and then returned to the garage where he confronted the co-worker. When the co-worker swore at him, Wielen grabbed his shirt and shoved him. The City cited its "zero tolerance" policy and fired Wielen, who sued claiming a violation of the Whistleblower Protection Act.
The City argued that there was no causal connection between Wielen's safety complaints and his firing, but the Court disagreed. It noted that a reasonable fact-finder could reach the conclusion that the City's handling of Wielen's complaints reflected a failure to protect him from retaliation. Nevertheless, the court ruled that Wielen could not pursue a WPA retaliation claim, because the termination under the zero tolerance workplace violence policy was not a mere pretext for firing Wielen. It reached this conclusion despite evidence that the City did not, in fact, apply a zero tolerance policy to prior violent incidents.