In a jury verdict issued on March 26, 2015, a supervisor for the nation’s largest ferry system was awarded $1 million because the jury concluded that his employer demoted him as an act of retaliation in violation of the Washington State Employee Whistleblower Protection Act because he was believed—albeit inaccurately—to be a whistleblower. Chaussee v. State of Washington, Wash. Super. Ct., No. 11-2-01884-6, 3/26/15.
Plaintiff, a carpenter shop foreman for the Washington State Ferry System, informed his supervisor of a co-worker’s alleged practice of attending baseball games and practices in a state-owned vehicle while the co-worker was on-the-clock. While the supervisor said he would conduct an investigation, he failed to do so. Two months later, an anonymous whistleblower—someone other than Plaintiff—filed a whistleblower complaint regarding the same conduct. After that complaint, Plaintiff began receiving performance-related warnings, allegedly based on his supervisor’s belief that Plaintiff was the anonymous whistleblower. Following a year-long investigation, the co-worker was suspended. However, Plaintiff was ultimately demoted, purportedly for the performance issues that arose only after the whistleblower complaint.
Plaintiff brought a claim under the Washington State Employee Whistleblower Protection Act, which protects both actual and “perceived” whistleblowers (defined as “[a]n employee who is perceived by the employer as reporting, whether they did or not, alleged improper governmental action … .”). At the conclusion of the trial, the jury found that Plaintiff had, in fact, been retaliated against for being perceived as a whistleblower, and awarded Plaintiff $1 million.
Our loyal readers will recall that we recently posted on an arguably similar instance where a California court found in favor of a “whistleblower” who never even blew the whistle. Though these cases may appear as outliers at first blush, they serve to signal that the risks continue to grow for employers and any adverse employment actions that may be based on or related to actual or even perceived whistleblowing will, at a minimum, be subject to serious scrutiny.