Interpreting The Scope of Protected Activity: New Guidance From the Law Court

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Controlling precedent interpreting Maine's Whistleblower Protection Act tends to be infrequent, so the Law Court's decision in Hickson v. Vescom Corporation, 2014 ME 27, Docket No. WAS-13-214, issued Tuesday, makes for interesting and instructive reading.

Richard Hickson was a shift supervisor employed by Vescom Corporation, a contractor that provided private security services at the Woodland paper mill in rural Baileyville.  Hickson's termination by Vescom followed a series of events that occurred after a visit to the mill by former Maine Governor John Baldacci, State Representative Anne Perry and a party of staffers.
Domtar, which owned the mill at that time, enforced specific safety policies pertaining to all employees and visitors.  Hickson alleged that he was terminated after reporting violations of those policies by the visiting group and for sending an email to Governor Baldacci expressing his concerns about the safety violations he observed during the visit.  Vescom claimed that his termination was driven by a couple of non-retaliatory factors, including Hickson's failure to follow Vescom's chain of command before he sent the email, as well as two previous instances of misconduct.

Vescom appealed a Washington County Superior Court jury’s decision in Hickson’s favor, which included a substantial punitives damages component.  The central issue on appeal involved portions of a jury instruction that treated the doctrine of protected activity and the lower court's ruling on a post-verdict motion for judgment as a matter of law.  At trial, Vescom argued that Hickson's report involved no violation of law or unsafe work condition or practice that implicated them.  Vescom unsuccessfully sought to obtain an instruction that would have defined protected activity in a limited fashion, that is, under circumstances in which Hickson reported what he reasonably believed to be a violation, condition or practice created by Vescom rather than by Domtar or the visitors themselves.
In an opinion authored by Chief Justice Leigh Saufley, the Law Court rejected Vescom's arguments with respect to the jury instruction and affirmed the lower court's denial of Vescom's motion following the jury's verdict, which was intended to set aside the verdict based upon an interpretation of whether Hickson's conduct met the statutory standard for "protected activity."
Elaborating upon its holding in a prior whistleblower decision, the Law Court clarified that "neither our [earlier] opinion nor the statute limits a whistleblower claim to those reports that are exclusively related to an affirmative action of the employer."  The Court's reasoning makes clear that a plaintiff-employee's report need only involve conduct that "bears a relationship to his employment," such that it "must be connected to the employer in such a way that the employer could take corrective action to effectuate a relevant change" in the conduct.  Among the evidence introduced at trial was the fact that Vescom had adopted Domtar's safety polices at the mill verbatim, and Vescom's employees, including Hickson, were required to enforce them.

One takeaway from the Hickson decision is that recent interpretations of "protected activity" are trending in favor of a broader rather than narrower scope.  Not only is this trend appearing in connection with Maine's statute, but several federal courts have also recently interpreted the doctrine broadly in the context of whistleblower claims brought pursuant to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002.  Another takeaway, of a more general nature, is that defending adverse employment actions involving whistleblowers is usually fraught with peril. The fact that an employee need only act "in good faith" in connection with the exercise of protected activity, with a "reasonable belief" concerning the subject of his or her complaint or report, often renders it difficult to challenge an employee's status as a whistleblower through pre-trial motion practice.  Once a dispute reaches a jury, legal arguments fall by the wayside and jurors rely more and more on what they already know and how they feel to evaluate gray areas presented in the testimony and in applying the court's instructions during their deliberations.

The complete decision in Hickson v. Vescom Corporation can be read here.