Tennessee Supreme Court Upholds a Narrow Definition of "Whistleblowers"

Miller & Martin PLLC Alerts | March 30, 2015

by dstjohn

by Stacie Caraway

On Friday, March 27, 2015, the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld a Court of Appeals decision that in order to be a "whistleblower," an employee must "blow the whistle" to someone aside from the perpetrator of the alleged illegal activity about which the employee is blowing the whistle.

The case, Haynes v. Formac Stables, Inc., had been accepted for review by the Supreme Court because it involved the unique scenario of the alleged illegal actor also being the owner of the whistleblower's employer. The employee, Mr. Haynes', position thus was "there was no one else to blow the whistle to" since the alleged perpetrator was the "highest authority there was."

The Court rejected this idea by saying that Mr. Haynes (like all other whistleblowers) in fact did have another option – reporting the alleged illegal behavior to someone outside his employer.

The Court was careful to say, as it has in other prior decisions, that it is not necessary to report the alleged illegal behavior to someone outside the employer in all situations. As long as the report is made to someone aside from the alleged perpetrator, and is made in good faith, the employee will meet the criteria of being a "whistleblower." The Court just pointed out that in this case, and going forward in others like it where the alleged perpetrator is an owner or someone else who is highly placed within the employer's organization, an employee will not be able to establish him/herself as a "whistleblower" for purposes of either Tennessee common or statutory law merely by pointing out to this person that he/she believes the person's acts are illegal.

Considering that whistleblower claims are (and for the past several years have been) the largest and fastest-growing area of EEOC charges and private lawsuits, this affirmation helps clarify an area of the law in Tennessee which has been up for debate for several years.

As always, should you have any questions regarding this development, or need assistance investigating, evaluating or defending your company against an alleged "whistleblower" retaliation claim, please feel free to contact Stacie Caraway or any other member of our Labor & Employment Law Practice Group.

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