Employment Law Daily Minnesota whistleblower need not suspect illegal conduct to bring retaliation claim
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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Minnesota whistleblower need not suspect illegal conduct to bring retaliation claim

By Lisa Milam-Perez, J.D.

An employee does not have to show that he or she is reporting illegal conduct in order to be protected from retaliation under the Minnesota Whistleblower Act, a unanimous Minnesota Supreme Court ruled. Responding in the affirmative to a certified question from the federal district court (one that drew amicus briefs from both sides), the state high court concluded that the legislature abrogated the court’s interpretation of “good faith” when it amended the statute in 2013, and eliminated the “judicially created requirement” that a whistleblower must act with the intention of “exposing an illegality” in order to be protected (Friedlander v. Edwards Lifesciences, LLC, August 9, 2017, Gildea, L.).

The employee had claimed that his superiors committed numerous violations of the law, including breach of contract, breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing, breach of fiduciary duty, and violations of California’s Unfair Competition Law, and that he expressed his concerns about this conduct to his superiors directly and to others within the company. It was undisputed, though, that these individuals were already aware of the conduct in question. When the employee was fired after reporting his concerns, he filed a retaliation suit under the Minnesota Whistleblower Act.

According to the employer, it could not have violated the statute because the employee had not “blown the whistle”—he only reported the alleged misconduct to people who already knew about it. As support for this position, it cited Obst v. Microtron, Inc., a 2000 Minnesota Supreme Court decision, which held that the statute’s “good faith” provision requires a putative whistleblower “to act with the purpose of exposing an illegality.” The high court interpretation imposed a standard which turned on both the content of the report and the whistleblower’s purpose in making the report, and this requirement became part of the statute.

However, Obst was no longer good law. A 2013 amendment to the statute revised the definition of “good faith” to exclude “statements or disclosures” that are knowingly false or in reckless disregard of the truth—and abrogated the high court’s judicially imposed good faith standard. Noting that in Obst, it had merely filled a definitional gap in the language of the statute as to the meaning of “good faith,” the Minnesota Supreme Court said the legislature provided its own definition when it amended the statute in 2013—one that contradicts the high court’s reading. Noting too the presumption that the legislature intends to change the law when it amends a statute, the court held the plain language of the amended statute must control.

Consequently, under the state whistleblower act, an individual makes a report in “good faith” as long as the report is not “knowingly false or made with reckless disregard of the truth.” As such, the purpose behind the report is no longer relevant to the inquiry; only the content of the report matters. The state legislature eliminated the judicially created requirement that a putative whistleblower act with the purpose of exposing an illegality, the high court held.

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