In a January 14, 2015 decision important to our work as Des Moines wrongful termination lawyers, the Iowa Court of Appeals once again rejected a public employee's attempt to recover for wrongful termination under Iowa's public employee whistleblower statute, Iowa Code 70A.29. In that case, Rick Carter v. Lee County, Rick Carter sued Lee County after he was fired. A jury returned a verdict for him and awarded money damages. The trial court overturned the jury's decision and entered judgment for the county instead. The appeal concerned whether the trial correctly overruled the jury and took away Carter's verdict.
Carter had served as the county's maintenance director. Carter maintained that the county fired him in retaliation for revealing to the public what he believed to be Lee County’s “troubling pattern of irresponsible money management” and health and safety violations." He asserted a violation of Iowa Code 70A.29. That statute provides that "[a] person shall not discharge an employee from . . . a position in employment by a political subdivision of this state as a reprisal for a disclosure of any information by that employee to . . . an official of that political subdivision . . . or for a disclosure of information to any other public official or law enforcement agency if the employee reasonably believes the information evidences a violation of law or rule, mismanagement, a gross abuse of funds, an abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety. This section does not apply if the disclosure of the information is prohibited by statute."
The fighting issue on appeal was whether Carter engaged in "protected activities" when he made his complaints to the Lee County Board of Supervisors. The trial court informed the jury that Carter was alleging the county terminated his employment because he had disclosed information to a public official or law enforcement agency that he reasonably believed was evidence of a violation of a law or rule, mismanagement, a gross abuse of funds, an abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to public safety or health. The jury further learned that "[i]f this was the reason he was terminated it was against public policy.” To win the case, Carter had to prove, among other things, that he reported certain information to a public official or law enforcement agency and he reasonably believed the information was evidence of the county committing a violation of law or rule, mismanagement, a gross abuse of funds, an abuse of authority, or of a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.
The Iowa Court of Appeals observed that Iowa Code 70A.29 requires proof the employee “reasonably believes” the information being disclosed is evidence of wrongdoing and that the statute thus considers the employee's beliefs from both a subjective and an objective standard. So while Carter’s subjective understanding and intent are relevant, the key question is whether a reasonable person in his circumstances would have believed the disclosed information revealed mismanagement, gross abuse of funds, or other comparable wrongdoing by Lee County. If Carter’s beliefs, however sincere, were objectively unreasonable, his actions were not protected activity. Both the trial court and the Court of Appeals concluded that Carter's beliefs of county wrongdoing were not objectively reasonable. That was fatal to his whistleblowing claim.
Another issue the court had with Carter's whistleblowing claim was that he seemed to be disclosing information that the Lee County Board of Supervisors was already aware of. The whistleblower provision required Carter to prove his discharge from employment was in reprisal for his disclosure of information either to public officials or to a law enforcement agency that he reasonably believed to be evidence of wrongdoing by the county. The common meaning of “disclose” is “to expose to view, as by removing a cover; uncover” or “to make known, divulge.” Because Carter’s complaints were familiar to the supervisors and the sheriff before Carter aired them at the public meetings, Carter failed to prove he exposed adverse information within the meaning of the whistleblower statute. The only thing Carter was doing was making his views and disagreements with the Board known to the public. The legislature did not include the public in the list of entities to whom wrongdoing may be reported to obtain whistleblower protection.
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