Whistleblower claim clears two hurdles….

Mr. Ruiz has a long way to go to win his whistleblower case against Raymondville ISD, but he cleared an important hurdle when the Court of Appeals declined the opportunity to toss his case out.  The most significant part of the court’s decision is its discussion of reports to a school district’s own police department. 

Many wannabe whistleblowers have lost their case because they blew the whistle in the wrong direction. To make the case, there has to be a report to an “appropriate law enforcement authority.”  In school district cases the facts often show that alleged wrongdoing was reported by a teacher to the principal, the superintendent, or the board.  It’s understandable that people would do that, but it amounts to blowing the whistle in the wrong direction.  Neither school administrators nor the board qualify as an “appropriate law enforcement authority.” As this case puts it:

An authority’s power to discipline its own or investigate internally does not support a good-faith belief that it is an appropriate law enforcement authority.  Instead, the authority must have outward-looking powers.

Citing an earlier decision, the court said:

It must have the authority to enforce, investigate, or prosecute violations of law against third parties outside of the entity itself, or it must have authority to promulgate regulations governing the conduct of such third parties.

So what about a school district’s own police department?  That’s what happened here.  On May 17, 2018, Mr. Ruiz sent a letter to the district’s chief of police, noting that the chief was his “immediate supervisor.”  The letter complained that Mr. Ruiz was being treated badly by a fellow officer. Eight days later the district fired Mr. Ruiz. 

Mr. Ruiz then claimed whistleblower status with a lawsuit against the district.  The district filed a Plea to the Jurisdiction alleging, among other things, that a report to one’s immediate supervisor is not a report to “an appropriate law enforcement authority.”   As we just noted, this defense often works.  But the court held that in this case anyway, the RISD Police Department was “an appropriate law enforcement authority:”

Even though he reported it to the Chief of Police as his “immediate supervisor,” the Raymondville ISD Police Department has “outward-looking powers” and the authority to enforce and investigate violations of the Texas Penal Code, including oppressive conduct.  Raymondville ISD Police Department qualifies as an “appropriate law enforcement authority” under the Texas Whistleblower Act because it has the authority to investigate the violation of criminal law alleged by Ruiz.

So the case proceeds.  Note that the court qualified its ruling by noting that the particular violation of law that Mr. Ruiz complained of (Official Oppression under Texas Penal Code 39.03) was one that the police department could investigate.  There are other alleged violations of law that fall outside of the jurisdiction of a school district police department. 

It's only a preliminary victory for Mr.  Ruiz, but it’s noteworthy because so many potential  whistleblowers have lost their case based on this “appropriate law enforcement” requirement.  The case goes on. It’s Raymondville ISD v. Ruiz, decided by the Court of Appeals for the 13th District, Corpus Christi-Edinburg, on March 4, 2021.


Tomorrow: FERPA Friday…