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Employee’s personal motivation in making whistleblower complaint didn’t deprive him of whistleblower protections

October 28th, 2011  |  Ron Miller

It is fairly evident in the context of suits under the False Claims Act, that the possibility of significant remuneration to the plaintiff is often a significant motivator for individuals to report that their employer is engaged in wrongdoing. Congress had no difficulty with that circumstance when it devised the statutory scheme. But, does the same logic apply in other instances of whistleblowing by employees? A Maryland Court of Appeals answered that question in the affirmative in Lawson v Bowie State Univ, when it reversed a lower court ruling that affirmed the decision of an administrative law judge, and extended whistleblower protections extended to an employee whose decision to disclose possible violations was personally motivated by a desire to make changes in the university police department in which he worked.

The employee was a 17-year veteran of a university police department when he was terminated for violating the department’s chain of command policy. Specifically, the employee drafted a letter disclosing potential abuses by fellow officers and, feeling unable to report these violations to the chief of police, he sent the letter to the university’s vice president of student affairs. The contents of the employee’s letter were forwarded to the police chief, leading to discharge for insubordination. Following his termination, the employee sought relief through administrative channels, arguing that he was entitled to whistleblower protection because the letter constituted a “protected disclosure” under Sec. 5-305 of the Maryland State Personnel Code.

Maryland’s Whistleblower Act prohibits reprisals against state employees for making a protected disclosure. Here, an ALJ dismissed the employee’s appeal on grounds that his letter was not a protected disclosure. Specifically, the ALJ concluded that the employee did not have a “reasonable belief that evidenced abuse of authority, mismanagement, waste of money, a danger to public safety or a violation of law.” The ALJ found that the employee did not have a reasonable belief after concluding that the letter was motivated by a crusade to make changes to the police department himself, rather than for the purpose of notifying higher authority to a pattern of wrongdoing.

However, the court of appeals determined that the ALJ erred in concluding that the employee did not satisfy the “reasonable belief” requirement of the Whistleblower Act. Maryland’s whistleblower protection statute requires only that the employee have a reasonable belief that he is reporting a violation, not that the employee possess a purely altruistic motive for the disclosure, concluded the appeals court.

The Maryland appeals court agreed with the Federal Circuit’s ruling in Horton v Dept of the Navy, that a motivation to make changes in the department is not a ground for denying whistleblower protections. In this instance, the ALJ improperly conflated the employee’s personal motivation for disclosure with the statutory requirement that an employee have a reasonable belief that the information disclosed evidences a violation, held the appeals court.

While we might like to think that whistleblowers are motivated by an employer’s unlawful or unethical activity that prompts a fit of moral outrage, in the final analysis, the motivation of the employee does not weigh heavily in an analysis of whether or not he or she enjoys protection as a whistleblower.