Policy stating entity will forward reports of fraud to law enforcement insufficient to trigger Whistleblower Act

The University of Houston v. John Casey, 01-13-00684-CV (Tex. App. – Houston [1st Dist.], July 3, 2014_

This is an interlocutory appeal from the denial of a plea to the jurisdiction in a Texas Whistleblower Act case. The 1st District Court of Appeals reversed and dismissed the suit.

Casey is a tenured professor at the University and began serving as the Chairman of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences in 1999. In 2011 the Dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics removed Casey noting he had an autocratic and abusive leadership style. While still chair, Janok Bhattacharya, another professor in the department, told Casey that he had the opportunity to visit Venezuela as a paid consultant.  Casey felt the trip violated University policy, but the Dean approved the trip. After removal as chair, Casey sued alleging the removal was in retaliation for reporting Bhattacharya’s trip to the Vice President of Legal Affairs and Chief Auditor as fraud. The University filed a plea to the jurisdiction noting Casey failed to establish a good faith report to a law enforcement authority. The trial court denied the plea and the University appealed.

Under the Whistleblower Act, an employee “must have believed he was reporting conduct that constituted a violation of law and his belief must have been reasonable based on his training and experience.” Under Texas law, “a whistleblower cannot reasonably believe his supervisor is an appropriate law-enforcement authority if the supervisor’s power extends no further than ensuring the governmental body itself complies with the law.” Casey may have produced evidence of a subject belief, but such a belief was not objective.  Even though the University issued policy memoranda that it would forward reports of fraud to law enforcement that did not authorize the Vice President and Chief Auditor to investigate or prosecute against third parties. After analyzing the facts and evidence, the court determined Casey failed to raise a material fact issue regarding whether he had a reasonable belief, based on his training and experience, that the Vice President and Chief Auditor were an appropriate law enforcement authority. As a result, the trial court should have granted the plea.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel: Justice Keyes, Justice Sharp, and Justice Huddle. Opinion by Justice Huddle.  The attorney listed for Casey is David Tang.  The attorney listed for the University is Darren Gibson.

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