Firefighter’s Court Testimony Protected By Whistleblowing Law

John Bedo worked for the City of Ecorse, Michigan Fire Department from 1973 to 2006. In the 1990s, he was promoted to fire captain, and in 2003 and 2004, he temporarily served as Fire Chief. In mid-2004, he returned to his position as fire captain.

On June 9, 2006, the Department reduced the number of firefighters required to be on duty at any one time. Later that day, Bedo sent the Fire Chief a memorandum stating: “I believe both the Mayor and the Fire Chief have jeopardized our citizens’ and firefighters’ safety. In the event of either the citizens,’ firefighters,’ or my injury or death, caused by these actions, I will hold the Mayor and the Fire Chief responsible.”

Four days later, Bedo testified in a case initiated by a former fire chief against the City for racial discrimination and breach of contract. Bedo was subpoenaed to testify for the former fire chief. A jury returned a verdict in favor of the chief and awarded him $600,000.

Three days after the jury’s verdict, the Mayor filed departmental charges against Bedo. All of the charges related to the memorandum that Bedo had written on June 9, 2006. According to Bedo, he was “forced to retire” in late July 2006 because of the “stress created by the Mayor’s action after he testified for the plaintiff against the City in the fire chief’s trial.” Bedo then filed a lawsuit under the Michigan Whistleblower’s Protection Act.

The City argued that Bedo’s testimony was not protected by the Act, and that his lawsuit should be dismissed. The Michigan Court of Appeals disagreed.

The Court found that “the plain language of the Act provides for protection for two types of whistleblowers: (1) Those who report, or are about to report, violations of the law, regulation, or rule to a public body; and (2) those who are requested by a public body to participate in an investigation held by that public body or in a court action. Nothing in the Act requires a whistleblower falling in the second category to report or testify to a violation or suspected violation of the law. Bedo testified under subpoena, i.e., at the request of a public body, at a court proceeding. Accordingly, we find that Bedo was engaged in an activity protected by the Act.

“Furthermore, although Bedo may not have testified about a specific violation of law, the former fire chief’s attorney stated in his affidavit that Bedo’s testimony directly contradicted that of several defense witnesses and substantiated many of the former fire chief’s claims. Bedo testified, among other things, that he heard City Council members say they wanted to get rid of the former fire chief, that the City Council hired people into the Fire Department who were not qualified for their position, that both he and the former fire chief had been mistreated by the City Council, and that he heard a City Council member refer to the Fire Department as being ‘lily white.’ We find that Bedo engaged in an activity protected under the Act and that a material question of fact exists as to whether that activity caused retaliation against him.”

Shaw v. City of Ecorse, 2009 WL 735864 (Mich. App. 2009).

This article appears in the May 2009 issue