Texas Supreme Court holds reporting to supervisor is not reporting to “appropriate law-enforcement authority” even when entity has prosecution division and trained to report that way- Dissent believes training qualifies

Texas Department of Human Services v Okoli, 10-0567 (Tex. August 22, 2014)

This is a Texas Whistleblower Case where the court held reporting a violation of law to a supervisor is not a report to an “appropriate law-enforcement authority” which is not something new.  However, the reason this opinion generated a dissent is because the employer had a law-enforcement division with prosecutorial authority.  The employee was trained to report to a supervisor and the supervisor can report to that division.  This is closer to the hypothetical situation the Court held in Gentilello would qualify as protected where the supervisor is a law-enforcement authority.

Okoli was an employee of the Texas Department of Human Services (“TDHS”) administering welfare programs. An internal rule prohibited false documentation.  Certain violations can carry criminal penalties. The Office of Inspector General (“OIG”) falls under the TDHS and is responsible for investigating and prosecuting violations of fraud, waste, and abuse of the health and safety services of the State. Okoli reported his new supervisor to the above supervisor for making and/or supporting falsified documentation. He continued to complain up the chain of command consistent with his training manual. Okoli was eventually terminated and sued. The TDHS filed a plea to the jurisdiction which the trial court denied and the court of appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court granted the Petition for Review.

A good portion of the opinion deals with Okoli’s training, noting he was trained to report up the chain of command exactly as he did.  The dissent asserts this training goes to his good faith belief that he was following the proper procedure for reporting with the expectation it would reach the OIG which is part of the TDHS. There appears to be no dispute that the OIG is an appropriate law-enforcement authority. The majority reasoned that the training make it clear to Okoli that to reach the OIG, the supervisors must provide it to them. They rejected that reporting to a supervisor is sufficient to form a good-faith belief when the supervisor must refer to someone else who qualifies as an appropriate law-enforcement agency. A supervisor is no more likely to pass on a report to the OIG than a supervisor would report to a law-enforcement agency which is outside of the entity involved. However, the Court expressly held reporting to a supervisor can, in certain situations, constitute a proper reporting, such as a police officer reporting a criminal violation to his supervisor who is also a police officer (the same hypo used in Gentilello).  The Court held in summary that for a report to a supervisor to count, it must be a report to an individual person who has law-enforcement powers or directly to the specific investigatory division, such as a police intake clerk. The dissent focused on the training creating the good-faith belief in Okoli’s mind to qualify, even if the individual supervisor has not law-enforcement authority.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. 6-9 Opinion. Justice Brown issued the opinion of the Court. Justice Devine wrote the dissent. Numerous lawyers are listed on the docket sheet so here is the sheet for reference.

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