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Thomas W. Werner

Michigan Supreme Court Considering Whether to Broaden Claims Under Michigan’s Whistleblower Protection Act and Common Law


By Thomas W. Werner 

The Michigan Supreme Court is currently considering a case that could broaden the claims that could be made by employees under Michigan common law and the state’s Whistleblower Protection Act (“WPA”). In Stegall v. FCA, US, LLC, et al, decided September 24, 2019, the Michigan Court of Appeals upheld a trial court’s dismissal of an action by the plaintiff against his employer, a staffing agency, and against FCA, the company where the plaintiff was placed on assignment. Plaintiff claimed that the ending of his assignment at FCA violated both the WPA and Michigan common law. We defended the staffing agency against the plaintiff’s claims. 

Plaintiff began working at FCA’s Sterling Heights Assembly Plant (“SHAP”) in 2013. Around May, 2016, FCA announced that it was ending production of its Chrysler 200 at SHAP, and that, therefore, the entirety of SHAP’s second shift (including the plaintiff) would be eliminated. After he received word from the staffing agency that his assignment had ended, the plaintiff informed the agency that he believed that FCA’s announcement was a ruse, and that instead his assignment was being terminated because he had complained internally about allegedly hazardous working conditions. For its part, the staffing agency contacted FCA on numerous occasions with questions relating to the plaintiff’s termination, but never heard any response to those questions. Thereafter, the plaintiff filed a complaint with the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“MiOSHA”) regarding the working conditions at SHAP. 

Upon motions by both FCA and the staffing agency, the trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s complaint in its entirety. The Michigan Court of Appeals upheld that decision. In so holding, the Court of Appeals held firm to well-established Michigan caselaw limiting public policy torts available to employees to situations wherein an adverse employment action was taken against an employee who refused to violate the law on the employer’s behalf. In this regard, the Court held:

Plaintiff essentially argues that his complaint about potential problems with asbestos at the plant and his demand for safety equipment amounted to a “refusal to violate a law” while he was at SHAP and that FCA and [the staffing agency] terminated him as a result. Plaintiff’s argument is without merit. First, there is no Michigan caselaw extending the public policy exception to discharges in retaliation for internal reporting of alleged violations of the law and plaintiff fails to cite any legal authority which would support such an extension. Second, there was no genuine issue of material fact to support that either FCA or Brightwing wrongfully terminated plaintiff in retaliation for his refusal to violate the law because there is no evidence that anyone actually violated any law or regulation.

The Court cited evidence that FCA had taken seriously plaintiff’s asbestos concerns, and that it had consulted an asbestos expert, who found that there was no asbestos hazard. The Court further cited to MiOSHA’s determination that there were no asbestos violations at SHAP. The Court ultimately held that “apart from his own unfounded suspicions, plaintiff fails to cite any evidence to support his contention that FCA violated the law during the term of his employment.” 

The Court similarly upheld the trial court’s dismissal of plaintiff’s claims under the WPA. In so holding, the Court first noted plaintiff’s burden to establish that any adverse employment action was motivated by activity protected by the WPA. The Court then cited well-established precedent that “[A] temporal relationship, standing alone, does not demonstrate a causal connection between the protected activity and any adverse employment action.” Citing West v. General Motors Corp., 469 Mich. 186; 665 N.W.2d 468 (2003). The Court then ultimately held that plaintiff had only presented evidence of a temporal relationship (i.e., that plaintiff complained about the alleged presence of asbestos and thereafter his assignment was ended), which evidence was insufficient to establish the necessary element of causation under the WPA. 

Plaintiff has since appealed this ruling to the Michigan Supreme Court, arguing for an expansion of Michigan common law to allow broader claims by employees against employers. Before the Supreme Court, the plaintiff also argues under the WPA that the well-established law that “[A] temporal relationship, standing alone, does not demonstrate a causal connection between the protected activity and any adverse employment action” should be either eliminated or substantially modified to allow for evidence that an adverse employment action is taken in “close proximity” to the exercise of activity protected by the WPA. 

These arguments have been fully briefed before the Michigan Supreme Court. We anticipate that the Court is likely to issue a ruling on Plaintiff’s appeal within the coming months. As it stands, the Court of Appeals’ decision would reaffirm the long-established precedent in Michigan that protects employers from claims wherein the plaintiff presents inadequate evidence of the essential element of motive under the WPA. The Supreme Court’s impending decision could either further bolster that case law, or it could allow plaintiffs broader leeway to proceed in claims under the WPA. 

Notably, Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (“ELCRA”), which prohibits acts of discrimination by employers due to race, gender, and age, also requires that plaintiffs prove that any adverse employment actions were motivated by a discriminatory intent. Like case law interpreting the WPA, the Michigan Supreme Court has long held that in such employment discrimination cases, proof of a temporal relationship alone cannot demonstrate the required causal connection. Therefore, the Supreme Court’s impending ruling will likely impact arguments to be made in cases outside of the WPA. 

Once the Michigan Supreme Court has issued an ultimate ruling on plaintiff’s appeal, we will further update you as to the status of the law in Michigan. 

In our second article this month, Life Lessons Learned Along the Way: The Jazzy Giraffe, Richard M. Mitchell ponders the benefits of differentiating yourself from others.