Special Guest Author, Laura Mueller.
City of Fort Worth v. Pridgen, et al., No. 05-18-00652-CV (Tex. App.—Dallas June 18, 2020) (mem. op.).
This is a Whistleblower Case (Texas Government Code Chapter 554) where the Dallas Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s denial of the city’s plea to the jurisdiction.
In a well-publicized, police use of force case, an officer, Martin, was seen on Facebook Live and on his body camera footage using force against individuals while arresting them. Due to the incident, claims of racism were made by the public against Officer Martin, and the incident was investigated by the two plaintiffs, high ranking members of the City of Fort Worth Police Department, Pridgen and Keyes. After reviewing the footage, these officers reported to the Police Chief, who was aware of the incident, and the officers recommended that Officer Martin be terminated. The Chief instead only suspended the officer for ten days. Both Pridgen and Keyes were demoted after the investigation due to the allegation that the officers release confidential information to the victims’ attorney without the city’s authorization.
Under the Whistleblower Act, immunity from suit is waived when the city employee shows that:
(1) that the plaintiff was a public employee, (2) that the defendant was a state agency or local government, (3) that the plaintiff reported in good faith a violation of law (4) to an appropriate law enforcement agency, and (5) that the plaintiff’s report was the but-for cause of the defendant’s suspending, firing, or otherwise discriminating against the plaintiff at the time the defendant took that action.Guillaume v. City of Greenville, 247 S.W.3d 457, 461 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2008, no pet.).
Good faith in this context requires that the employee must have believed that he was reporting a violation of law and this determination must be reasonable based on the employee’s training and experience. To be a but-for cause of an employee’s demotion, the report must have been a reason, but is not required to be the sole cause of the adverse employment action. The issues in this case was whether: (1) it is a report of a violation of law if the person to whom they report to already knows of the violation of law; (2) that the report was not made in good faith; and (3) the report was not the cause of the officers’ demotions.
The court held that a report can be sufficient under the Whistleblower Act even if the appropriate law enforcement agency to whom it is reported already knows of the violation, in this case the report to the Chief was sufficient even though the Chief was aware of the officer’s investigation and was familiar with the facts that led to the allegations. The court also held that the officers made their report in objective good faith even if there was other evidence that may have negated the violation of law that they could have viewed but did not. There is no duty for an employee to investigate a violation of law before reporting it for Whistleblower Act purposes. Finally, the court held there was a sufficient nexus between the officers’ demotions and the report of violations of law based on the Chief’s negative attitude towards the report and the evidence of inconsistencies in the investigation and discipline of the officers.
If you would like to read this opinion click here.