Whistleblower Protection Does Not Depend On Employee Motivation

Bruce Whitman was the Police Chief of the City of Burton, Michigan from 2002 to 2007, when the City’s mayor declined to reappoint him. Whitman then sued the City under Michigan’s Whistleblower Protection Act, claiming that the Mayor’s decision not to reappoint him was prompted by Whitman’s repeated complaints to the Mayor and the City Attorney that the refusal to pay Whitman’s previously accumulated unused sick and personal leave time would violate a City ordinance.

At trial, a jury found that Whitman had engaged in protected whistleblower conduct and that his protected conduct made a difference in the Mayor’s decision not to reappoint him as police chief. The jury awarded Whitman total damages in the amount of $232,500. The City appealed, arguing that Whitman had no whistleblower claim because, “in threatening to inform the city council or prosecute the mayor for a violation of the ordinance, Whitman clearly intended to advance his own financial interests. He did not pursue the matter to inform the public on a matter of public concern.”

The Michigan Supreme Court found that a whistleblower’s motivation was irrelevant to the issue of whether a valid whistleblowing claim could be raised. The Court noted that it “had explained that the whistleblower law meets its objective of protecting the public by protecting the whistleblowing employee and by removing barriers that may interdict employee efforts to report violations or suspected violations of the law. Without employees who are willing to risk adverse employment consequences as a result of whistleblowing activities, the public would remain unaware of large-scale and potentially dangerous abuses. Therefore, as long as an employee demonstrates a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse employment action, the subjective motivation for engaging in the protected activity in the first instance is not relevant to whether the employee may recover under the act.

“In this case, it is undisputed that the Mayor decided to withhold payment of unused sick, personal, and vacation time in violation of the ordinance, a decision to which Whitman objected. It is also undisputed that Whitman reported the Mayor’s violation of the ordinance to the Mayor himself, to the City Administrator, and the City Attorney, and that following Whitman’s reporting of this violation, he was discharged. Accordingly, Whitman engaged in conduct protected under the whistleblower laws.”

Though the Supreme Court upheld Whitman’s whistleblower claim, it returned the case to a lower court to resolve a variety of remaining legal issues.

Whitman v. City of Burton, 831 N.W.2d 223 (Mich. 2013).