LANSING, Mich. (Legal Newsline) -- The Michigan Supreme Court ruled last week that the state's Whistleblowers' Protection Act does not require that any "motivation" be proved as a prerequisite to bringing a claim.
"A plaintiff's motivation is not relevant to the issue whether a plaintiff has engaged in protected activity and proof of any specific motivation is not a prerequisite to bringing a claim under the WPA," Justice Mary Beth Kelly wrote for the court in its ruling Wednesday.
Bruce Whitman brought an action in Genesee County Circuit Court against the city of Burton and its mayor, Charles Smiley, alleging that the defendants had violated the WPA when Smiley declined to reappoint Whitman as police chief for the city in November 2007.
Whitman alleged he was not reappointed because, in early 2004, he had threatened to pursue criminal charges against the mayor if the city did not comply with a city ordinance and pay him for the unused sick, personal and vacation leave time he had accumulated in 2003.
The defendants maintained that the plaintiff, along with other city administrators, had agreed to forgo any payout for accumulated leave to avoid a severe budgetary shortfall and that Whitman was not reappointed because Smiley was dissatisfied with many aspects of his performance as chief of police.
At trial, the jury found that Whitman had engaged in protected conduct and that his conduct made a difference in the mayor's decision not to reappoint him as police chief.
The jury awarded him total damages in the amount of $232,500, and the circuit court subsequently entered a judgment in that amount.
Defendants moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or for a new trial, which the circuit court denied.
The state Court of Appeals reversed in a split published opinion, with the majority holding, as a matter of law, that Whitman's claim was not actionable under the WPA because, "in threatening to inform the city council or prosecute the mayor for a violation of Ordinance 68-C, plaintiff 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 appeals court ruled, concluding that Whitman had "acted entirely on his own behalf."
Accordingly, the appeals court reversed the lower court's denial of the defendants' motion for JNOV and remanded the case for further proceedings.
The state Supreme Court granted leave to appeal.
On appeal, the defendants argued that in order to assert an actionable claim under the WPA, an employee's primary motivation for engaging in protected conduct must be "a desire to inform the public on matters of public concern."
In the opinion by Kelly, joined by Chief Justice Robert P. Young Jr. and Justices Michael F. Cavanaugh, Stephen J. Markman and Brian K. Zahra, the state's high court disagreed.
"MCL 15.362 does not address an employee's 'primary motivation,' nor does the statute's plain language suggest or imply that any motivation must be proved as a prerequisite for bringing a claim," the court wrote in its 18-page decision. "Further, the WPA does not suggest or imply, let alone mandate, that an employee's protected conduct must be motivated by 'a desire to inform the public on matters of public concern' as a prerequisite for bringing a claim.
"Therefore, we hold that, with regard to the question whether an employee has engaged in conduct protected by the act, there is no 'primary motivation' or 'desire to inform the public' requirement contained within the WPA."
The court continued, "Because there is no statutory basis for imposing a motivation requirement, we will not judicially impose one. To do so would violate the fundamental rule of statutory construction that precludes judicial construction or interpretation where, as here, the statute is clear and unambiguous."
The court reversed the Court of Appeals decision, and remanded the case to the court for consideration of all remaining issues on which the court did not formally rule.
From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.