SCOTUS ruling protects subpoenaed whistleblower

The United States Supreme Court unanimously decided to overturn part of a lower court’s ruling rejecting the claim of a former community college official who attributed his firing to retaliation for his testimony against a state representative. The ruling could inform the handling of many future whistleblowing cases in Wisconsin and nationwide.

The plaintiff was directing a community college program in Alabama in 2006 to help at-risk youth when he discovered through an audit that the college was paying a state representative on the program’s payroll for doing nothing. He terminated her employment and was later subpoenaed regarding his discoveries in a federal indictment against the politician that led to her conviction.

In 2009, the plaintiff and 28 other employees were laid off during a budget shortfall at the college. The president quickly rescinded all of the firings, however, except for the plaintiff and one other person.

The man’s initial lawsuit was rejected in two lower courts on the basis that he had no First Amendment protection due his firing of the representative and his testifying against her each being an act in an official capacity. The Supreme Court partially reversed this judgment, stating that the man’s obligation to the court and society to tell the truth at trial exemplified an act of citizen speech. An interim president of the college inherited liability for the man’s suit in an official capacity, and the case was partially remanded for this purpose.

The Supreme Court’s precedent should specifically bolster civil arguments for workers who are punished for giving honest testimony in response to subpoenas. It might not aid the case of a whistleblower who is punished for responding to corruption before the government mandates him or her to do so.

Source: NPR, “Supreme Court Sides With Whistleblower In Retaliation Case“, Bill Chappell, June 19, 2014

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