On August 15, 2013, a Washington County, Minnesota jury awarded the former dean of a for-profit university $395,000 under Minnesota’s whistleblower law (M.S.A. § 181.932).  This verdict is consistent with the substantial verdicts we have seen of late in whistleblower cases around the country.

Background:  Plaintiff Heidi Weber (Weber) was the dean of the medical assistant program at Globe University (the University), a for-profit university in Woodbury, Minnesota.  She held that position for a little over a year, and previously served as an adjunct faculty member and program chair.  During her tenure as dean, she allegedly complained to Globe officials that the school used falsified job placement numbers, lied to students about salary ranges and job placement statistics, failed to train students adequately, and paid commissions to admissions staff to boost enrollment.  The University terminated Weber’s employment in 2011, allegedly based on her “poor performance and lack of leadership.”

Court Proceedings:  Weber brought suit against the University under Minnesota’s whistleblower law, alleging that she was discharged for complaining of the above-referenced conduct.  A central issue in the case was whether Weber’s complaints to her supervisor could serve as a cognizable basis for a whistleblower action under Minnesota law.  The University argued that Weber did not engage in activity protected by the statute, as she complained to her supervisors, and not to an outside official or agency.  Ultimately, the court and the jury found that Weber had indeed engaged in protected activity.

Jury Verdict:  On August 15, 2013, after a week-long trial, a jury concluded that the University violated the Minnesota whistleblower law and ordered the University to pay Weber $395,000.  The award included $205,000 for lost wages and $190,000 for emotional distress.

Implications:  This adverse jury verdict underscores the risks attendant to claims under the wide range of state law claims around the country.  Moreover, it dispels the notion that private companies are essentially immune from whistleblower concerns.  Indeed, it serves as a wake-up call to private employers in myriad industries that they are vulnerable to such attacks and should take preventative measures to minimize the risks.

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Photo of Steven J. Pearlman Steven J. Pearlman

Steven J. Pearlman is a partner in the Labor & Employment Law Department and Co-Head of the Whistleblowing & Retaliation Group and the Restrictive Covenants, Trade Secrets & Unfair Competition Group.

Steven’s practice covers the full spectrum of employment law, with a particular…

Steven J. Pearlman is a partner in the Labor & Employment Law Department and Co-Head of the Whistleblowing & Retaliation Group and the Restrictive Covenants, Trade Secrets & Unfair Competition Group.

Steven’s practice covers the full spectrum of employment law, with a particular focus on defending companies against claims of employment discrimination, retaliation and harassment; whistleblower retaliation; restrictive covenant violations; theft of trade secrets; and wage-and-hour violations. He has successfully tried cases in multiple jurisdictions, and defended one of the largest Illinois-only class actions in the history of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. He also secured one of only a few ex parte seizures orders that have been issued under the Defend Trade Secrets Act, and obtained a world-wide injunction in federal litigation against a high-level executive who jumped ship to a competitor.

Reporting to boards of directors, their audit committees, CEOs and in-house counsel, Steven conducts sensitive investigations and has testified in federal court. His investigations have involved complaints of sexual harassment involving C-suite officers; systemic violations of employment laws and company policies; and fraud, compliance failures and unethical conduct.

Steven was recognized as Lawyer of the Year for Chicago Labor & Employment Litigation in the 2023 edition of The Best Lawyers in America. He is a Fellow of the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers.  Chambers describes Steven as an “outstanding lawyer” who is “very sharp and very responsive,” a “strong advocate,” and an “expert in his field.” Steven was 1 of 12 individuals selected by Compliance Week as a “Top Mind.” Earlier in his career, he was 1 of 5 U.S. lawyers selected by Law360 as a “Rising Star Under 40” in the area of employment law and 1 of “40 Illinois Attorneys Under Forty to Watch” selected by Law Bulletin Publishing Company. Steven is a Burton Award Winner (U.S. Library of Congress) for “Distinguished Legal Writing.”

Steven has served on Law360’s Employment Editorial Advisory Board and is a Contributor to Forbes.com. He has appeared on Bloomberg News (television and radio) and Yahoo! Finance, and is regularly quoted in leading publications such as The Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has engaged Steven to serve as lead counsel on amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court and federal circuit courts of appeal. He was appointed to serve as a Special Assistant Attorney General for the State of Illinois in employment litigation matters. He has presented with the Solicitor of the DOL, the Acting Chair of the EEOC, an EEOC Commissioner, Legal Counsel to the EEOC and heads of the SEC, CFTC and OSHA whistleblower programs. He is also a member of the Sedona Conference, focusing on trade secret matters.