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A Better Partnership
February 26, 2015

COA finds that suspicion of future violation of law suffices in whistle-blower claims

To establish a prima face case under Michigan's Whistleblower Protection Act ("WPA"), the plaintiff must show the following: (1) the plaintiff was engaged in a protected activity; (2) the plaintiff was discharged or discriminated against; and (3) a causal connection existed between the discharge or adverse employment action.  West v. General Motors Corp., 665 NW2d 468 (Mich 2003).  In Pace v. SIREN Eaton Shelter, Inc., No. 319223, the Michigan Court of Appeals held that reporting a suspected future violation of law is engaging in a protected activity under the WPA.
 
Barbara Pace worked at SIREN Eaton Shelter, a domestic violence survivors shelter, for ten years.  Pace alleged that roughly one month before her termination, a coworker told her that she intended to use shelter grant funds to purchase a stove for her daughter.  Pace claimed that she then went and reported her coworker's plan up the management chain to Jessica Edel-Harrelson, the shelter's executive director.  The defendants denied nearly all of Pace's claims.  The trial court granted summary disposition to the defendants because Pace merely suspected that her coworker would improperly use funds in the future.  In other words, no violation or suspected violation of a law had yet occurred.  Pace, therefore, could not establish that she engaged in a protected activity.
 
But the Court of Appeals reversed.  The case turned on whether Pace reported a "suspected violation of law" under the WPA.  The defendants argued that a reasonable belief that a violation of law was being "actively planned" would be insufficient to establish a suspected violation of a law.  The Court of Appeals disagreed and stated that defendants would essentially require a plaintiff to "(a) report the planned violation without the [protections of the WPA]; (b) remain silent until the violation occurs; or (c) undertake her own investigation to determine whether and when the planned violation has been completed." The first two options are inconsistent with the language of the WPA.  The Court called the third option "foolish, if not dangerous and potentially unlawful."  Finally, the Court held it inconsistent with the intent of the WPA to require a reporter to wait until she is certain that the violation is complete.
 
The Court of Appeals, therefore, reversed the trial court's grant of summary disposition to defendants.  The case was remanded back to the trial court with Pace having established the prima facie claim under the WPA.

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