REPORTING WRONGDOING ONLY INTERNALLY CAN TRIGGER WHISTLEBLOWER PROTECTION

Office of the Attorney General v. Weatherspoon
Dallas Court of Appeals, No. 05-13-00632-CV (June 16, 2014)
Justices O’Neill, Lang-Miers, and Evans (Opinion)
The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s denial of a plea to the jurisdiction in a whistleblower suit in which the plaintiff alleged she reported a violation of law to her superior, who was required by internal policy to forward the report to the appropriate law enforcement authority.

Weatherspoon worked as an assistant attorney general in the Child Support Division of the Texas Office of the Attorney General (OAG). She alleged that a senior attorney at OAG attempted to force her to sign an untrue affidavit. Weatherspoon reported this alleged abuse of power to her division head in accordance with OAG’s policy manual, which required OAG employees to report any potential criminal violation internally before reporting it to an outside law enforcement agency. Weatherspoon’s employment was later terminated. 

Weatherspoon sued OAG under the Texas Whistleblower Act, alleging she was terminated in retaliation for her report against the senior attorney. OAG filed a plea to the jurisdiction, contending Weatherspoon had not made a good-faith report of a violation of law to an appropriate law enforcement authority, as required to invoke the Act. OAG relied on cases holding that reports made internally to one’s own employer are generally insufficient to invoke the Act.

The Court of Appeals distinguished these cases, noting that reports made internally may satisfy the requirements of the Act if the employer has the power to enforce, investigate, or prosecute violations against third parties outside the entity itself. The OAG is such an employer, and although Weatherspoon reported alleged wrongdoing only to personnel within the Child Support Division, which does not have authority over claims of abuse of office, OAG’s policies required those personnel to pass Weatherspoon’s report on to OAG’s Office of Special Investigations, which does have such authority. Given this mandatory policy, the Court concluded Weatherspoon’s report to her division head was, in effect, a report to the Office of Special Investigations, which was “an appropriate law enforcement authority” under the Whistleblower Act. The Court therefore concluded the Act applied and affirmed the trial court’s denial of OAG’s plea to the jurisdiction.

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