Fort Worth ISD fired assistant principal Joseph Palazzolo in the fall of 2010. Mr. Palazzolo sued, alleging that the district was retaliating against him for being a whistleblower. The jury agreed with Mr. Palazzolo and rendered a verdict in his favor with damages that added up to $2,146,352.09. How many years does an assistant principal have to work to earn that much?
The trial court issued a judgment against the district for that amount, along with attorneys’ fees. On July 7, 2016, that judgment was reversed. The Court of Appeals held that the trial judge goofed when he failed to instruct the jury to answer an important question: would Fort Worth have fired the man for reasons unrelated to his whistleblowing?
The Texas Whistleblower Act was the basis for the suit, with Mr. P claiming that he was fired for reporting in good faith what he believed to be violations of the law. But the district claimed that there were six very specific reasons for the termination of the man’s employment, ranging from falsifying information on his application to creating a hostile work environment to inappropriate physical contact with a student. The Whistleblower Act says:
It is an affirmative defense to suit under this chapter that the employing state or local governmental entity would have taken the action against the employee that forms the basis of the suit based solely on information, observation, or evidence that is not related to the fact that the employee made a report protected under this chapter of a violation of law.
So this case was a classic factual dispute, with the A.P. claiming that he was fired for his whistleblowing, while the district claimed that that had nothing to do with it. The Court of Appeals concluded that the affirmative defense offered by the district should have been directly presented to the jury in the form of a question. The judge did not give the jury that instruction and thus….poof—there goes that enormous verdict.
The case is Fort Worth ISD v. Palazzolo, decided by the Court of Appeals for the 2nd District, Fort Worth, on July 7, 2016. We found it at 2016 WL 3667867.
DAWG BONE: IF YOU WERE GOING TO GET FIRED ANYWAY, YOU MAY NOT SUCCEED ON YOUR WHISTLEBLOWER CASE.
File this one under: LIABILITY
Tomorrow: A case that turns on how far down the legs the underpants went. No kidding.