Federal employees are protected from retaliation for protected whistleblowing activity. But what evidence do you need to support a whistleblower retaliation case? A recent decision by the Federal Circuit helps clarify what evidence should be reviewed.
What is Whistleblowing?
Whistleblowing means disclosing information that an employee or applicant reasonably believes evidences a violation of any law, rule, or regulation, or gross mismanagement, a gross waste of funds, an abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.
Whistleblower Protection Act
In 1989, Congress enacted the Whistleblower Protection Act, which, among other provisions, prohibits retaliation for whistleblowing. See 5 U.S.C. § 2302(b)(8). In order for an employee or applicant to prove retaliation for whistleblowing, the courts have employed a burden-shifting scheme, where the employee or applicant must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he or she made a protected disclosure that was a contributing factor in the personnel action threatened, taken, or not taken against the employee or applicant. If the employee or applicant is able to establish that the protected disclosure was a contributing factor, the Merit Systems Protection Board (“MSPB”) will order corrective action unless the agency can demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that it would have taken “the same personnel action in the absence of such disclosure.” 5 U.S.C. § 1221(e). The clear and convincing standard of proof is higher than the preponderance of the evidence standard.
Under Carr v. Social Security Administration, 185 F.3d 1318 (Fed. Cir. 1999), the MSPB must weigh three factors in making a determination whether an agency has met the clear and convincing standard of proof: (1) the strength of the agency’s evidence in support of its personnel action; (2) the existence and strength of any motive to retaliate on the part of the agency officials who were involved in the decision; and (3) any evidence that the agency takes similar actions against employees who are not whistleblowers.
In a recent case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, the court stated that “[e]vidence only clearly and convincingly supports a conclusion when it does so in the aggregate considering all the pertinent evidence in the record, and despite the evidence that fairly detracts from that conclusion.” Whitmore v. Department of Labor, No. 2011-2084 (Fed. Cir. May 30, 2012).
In Whitmore, the Federal Circuit reviewed an appeal from a former employee who challenged the Department of Labor’s decision to remove him for his allegedly disruptive and insubordinate behavior. The MSPB affirmed the agency’s removal decision, and held that the employee did not prove his affirmative defense that the removal constituted unlawful retaliation for making protected disclosures. The Federal Circuit reversed the MSPB decision, and remanded the case for further fact finding.
The court stated that the MSPB excluded or ignored evidence offered by the employee that was necessary to adjudicate his claim of whistleblower retaliation. Specifically, the MSPB failed to evaluate all the relevant evidence in the aggregate, as the MSPB focused solely on the evidence that supported the agency’s removal decision. The court also found that the MSPB erred when it excluded witnesses from the hearing who could have supported the employee’s claim of whistleblower reprisal. And the court found the MSPB’s interpretation of “similarly situated” employees who were not whistleblowers to be unduly restrictive, as the required degree of similarity between employees cannot be read so strictly that the only evidence helpful to the inquiry is completely disregarded.
The court reaffirmed the vital role that whistleblowers play in society and the critical need to protect them:
“Congress decided that we as a people are better off knowing than not knowing about such violations and improper conduct, even if it means that an insubordinate employee like Mr. Whitmore becomes, via such disclosures, more difficult to discipline or terminate. Indeed, it is in the presence of such non-sympathetic employees that commitment to the clear and convincing evidence standard is most tested and is most in need of preservation.”
The attorneys at Kator, Parks & Weiser have extensive expertise in representing federal employees who allege retaliation for making protected whistleblowing disclosures. Contact us today for a free consultation.