Mr. Van Deelen in Spring ISD thinks that he got fired for reporting two things that he thought were violations of law. First, there was the teacher who he believes was dealing drugs to the kids in the parking lot. Second, there was the principal who was told of this and then failed to pass it on to law enforcement. Mr. Van D reported these alleged transgressions to everyone short of the governor’s office and later claimed he was fired for doing so. Whistleblower suit.
Spring ISD convinced the district court to dismiss the suit entirely, but the court of appeals has partially reversed that decision. We can learn a few things about Whistleblower cases from the court’s opinion.
First, just because the principal fails to do something that the law says she “shall” do does not mean that the principal has violated the law. Mr. Van D reported to law enforcement that his principal had not complied with Section 37.015 of the Education Code. That section says that a principal “shall notify” the police if she has “reasonable grounds” to believe that certain types of misconduct have occurred on school property. The court held that this statute is a “notification statute that does not create criminal liability for a failure to report. Therefore, “A failure to report under 37.015 is not a violation of law.” No violation of law, means no Whistleblower claim.
Second, the plaintiff in a Whistleblower case does not have to be right about the alleged violation of law—he just has to have a good faith belief that he is right. This case involves huge factual disputes that will have to be sorted out, which is why the appellate court held that it was premature to toss it out completely.
The plaintiff provided an eyewitness account of what he believed to be drug dealing between students and a teacher in the school parking lot. Yikes. The principal investigated these allegations and found them to be without merit. In fact, the district promptly suspended Mr. Van D and terminated his employment at the end of the year after the principal accused him of “a pattern of false and unwarranted accusations against African-American students and teachers…involving drug use.” Perhaps that is so, but the plaintiff Whistleblower does not have to be right about what he reports. He just has to have a good faith belief that he is right.
There are fact issues to be resolved, which is why the appellate court held that the case should not be prematurely terminated. Certainly what Mr. Van D thinks that he witnessed would amount to a violation of law. Here is where the factual dispute comes up. The court summed it up nicely:
The District argues that Van Deelen “jumped to conclusions” that [the other teacher] was dealing drugs. We disagree.
The court then recounted the detailed allegations from the Plaintiff’s perspective and concluded that:
A reasonably prudent teacher with similar training and experience and in similar circumstances could have believed that [the other teacher] was involved with, and possibly dealing, illegal drugs.
So the case will continue. It’s Van Deelen v. Spring ISD, decided by the Court of Appeals in Houston on December 20, 2018. We found it at 2018 WL 6684278.
DAWG BONE: YOU HAVEN’T BLOWN THE WHISTLE PROPERLY UNLESS YOU ACTED IN GOOD FAITH.
Tomorrow: Toolbox Tuesday!!