Texas Supreme Court holds demoted officers failed to submit proper Whistleblower report

City of Fort Worth v Abdul Pridgen and Vance Keyes, No. 20-0700 (Tex. May 27, 2022)

In this Whistleblower lawsuit, the Texas Supreme Court held the city employees did not make a qualifying “report” to trigger protection. 

The two employees (Pridgen and Keyes) were veteran law enforcement officers employed by the Fort Worth Police Department. Pridgen served as Assistant Chief, Keyes as Deputy Chief. Both supervised the Department’s Internal Affairs and Special Investigations Units. Keyes reported directly to Pridgen, who in turn reported to Chief of Police Joel Fitzgerald. Officer Martin was dispatched to a call that an individual choked a young daughter. The mother (Craig) asserted Martin arrested her and her daughter because they “pissed him off” and violated their rights as they were the victims. Portions of the incident were recorded and went viral on social media. Internal Affairs conducted pre-disciplinary hearings and investigation. Pridgen and Keyes reviewed the evidence and determined Martin violated the law and should be terminated.  Both Pridgen and Keyes assert that they conveyed these conclusions to Chief Fitzgerald on multiple occasions prior to Martin’s receiving discipline.  Though Chief Fitzgerald agreed that Martin used excessive force, he and several other members of the Internal Affairs Unit disagreed with Pridgen and Keyes about their other conclusions and did not think Martin should be terminated. Afterwards, part of Martin’s body cam video was leaked online. An internal investigation pointed to Pridgen and Keyes as the potential leak.  Both were demoted and Keyes was suspended for three days. Both sued the City asserting Whistleblower protection. The City filed motions for summary judgment which were denied by the trial court and affirmed by the court of appeals. The City appealed. 

The Court held to constitute a “report[” under the Act, an employee must convey information, not just conclusions. Information requires specific facts as opposed to mere opinions or suppositions. Communicating unsupported opinions or legal conclusions is insufficient.  All Pridgen and Keyes provided were opinions of whether Martin violated any policies or law and their opinions as to the appropriate penalty. The Act is not intended to protect all reports; it is intended to protect those that further this purpose of curbing mismanagement in the public sector. The Court rejected the City’s additional arguments that reports must disclose new information not already known and should not be protected if employees report regularly as part of their jobs.   However, the Court held Respondents’ communications with Chief Fitzgerald consisted principally of recommendations about the appropriate legal conclusions to be drawn from Martin’s actions. They are opinions and conclusions, which are not protected. As a result, no jurisdiction exists for their claims. 

If you would like to read this opinion click here. JUSTICE LEHRMANN delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Hecht, Justice Devine, Justice Busby, Justice Bland, Justice Huddle, and Justice Young joined, and in which Justice Blacklock joined except as to Part III(A).JUSTICE BLACKLOCK filed a concurring opinion. JUSTICE BOYD filed a dissenting opinion.

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