Everyday Heroes: Your Rights and Risks if You Blow the Whistle at Work

One of Kafoury & McDougal’s clients was a pharmacist at a huge retail store who saw a customer slip on a wet floor, suffering grave injuries.  The store manager immediately ordered the employees to place cones around the fallen man, and then take photos.  The customer never recovered from his injuries, and a wrongful death lawsuit was filed.  A number of employees dutifully knuckled under to the power of their employer, claiming that the man had fallen because he had ignored the safety cones.  When the pharmacist refused to join the cover-up, the company quickly settled the case and later fired the pharmacist, claiming they had done so because he was occasionally late for work.

His story is all too familiar.  Employees who witness negligence, misconduct, and even crimes committed by their employers know that their only safe course is to ignore what they have seen.  All too often, the employers lean on employees to go much further, to lie about what they know, often demanding that employees perjure themselves to protect the company.

How can an employee maintain their personal integrity in the face of corruption, when they know that doing the right thing may cost them their job, or even their career?

Years ago, Kafoury & McDougal represented Pamela Settlegoode, an adaptive PE teacher who worked with severely disabled children in the Portland Public Schools.  When she saw that the children’s federal rights to equal educational opportunities were being systematically denied, she complained in writing to her superiors.  They wrote back that she should stop such writings, because “writing is not an effective means of communication.”  She kept on writing, on up the chain of command, until she reached the superintendent of schools.  Thereafter, Settlegoode found her file being papered with criticisms of her teaching, and her employment was not renewed.  We sued the school district and her superiors, and a federal jury in 2001 awarded her the prayer, $1.1 million.

This summer, another Kafoury & McDougal client, Michael Wright, was awarded $970,000 plus his attorney fees in a case against the NW Regional Education Service District and its HR director, Jack Musser (link to Steve Duin column here).  Wright was a teacher of blind and visually-impaired children who complained that the district was not spending the money set aside for such students by the Oregon legislature.  The legislature became so appalled at the pitiful use made of these funds that they terminated the funding, causing incalculable harm to the students who needed the programs and specialized teachers that should have been provided to them.  As for Michael Wright, he was written up for being “unprofessional” for providing too much “advocacy” on behalf of blind students, and then fired over a technicality which was routinely ignored for other teachers.

The lessons of the Settlegoode and Wright cases are both that whistleblowers put their careers at risk, and that juries recognize and honor those who willingly place themselves in harm’s way in order to serve a greater good.

If you or someone you know should feel pressure to conceal or lie about wrongdoing by your employer, you should copy and keep relevant documents, make good notes, and call a lawyer for advice, sooner rather than later.