A whistleblower will receive $480,000 after suing Grand Traverse Country, Michigan, for violating the Whistleblower Protection Act, according to a January 6 article in the Traverse City Record-Eagle. The whistleblower’s lawyer is satisfied with the conclusion of the case but has suggestions for potential whistleblowers.
Laura Green, who worked for the county as its former Commission on Aging (COA) Deputy Director from 2014 to 2017, filed a lawsuit alleging Grand Traverse County engaged in whistleblower retaliation when they fired her. County Administrator Nate Alger did not comment on the settlement, which was finalized in early December of 2020, “but said it is the largest paid out by the county in recent history,” the article states.
The county will pay Green $75,000 of the total $480,000: after that, “a county insurance policy through the Michigan Municipal Risk Management Authority will kick in to pay the rest,” Alger told the Record-Eagle.
“It’s extremely difficult when you are one person on the receiving end of so much disrespect and negativity to stand up and fight against that,” Green said in the article. “It’s impossible, actually.”
Green “feels vindicated” by the decision and expressed that “the past three years have been difficult, both professionally and personally.”
In February of 2017, Green was fired “one day after speaking during public comment at a county board meeting about what she said was a plan by county officials to divert earmarked millage funds from the COA to the county’s general fund,” according to the article. Green “also claimed the county planned to violate its own policies by awarding a contract potentially worth $2 million without going out for bids.” She filed a lawsuit under the Michigan Whistleblowers’ Protection Act (WPA) shortly after her termination.
Reasons given for Green’s 2017 firing were poor job performance: former County Administrator Tom Menzel criticized Green’s job performance and abilities in her termination letter and wrote that “Green’s ‘demonstrated anger at the Board of Commissioners’ was perceived as a direct threat to administration staff and is insubordination,” according to the article. District Court Judge Bob Cooney, who was the county prosecutor at the time of Green’s firing, “called Menzel’s letter despicable” in a September 2020 deposition. However, Menzel stands by his prior words: “The results of her firing were justified by her activities in the performance of her job,” Menzel told the Record-Eagle. “We held people accountable for their performance with fair and measurable criteria. Her firing was justified and the facts bore that out.”
13th Circuit Court Chief Judge Kevin Elsenheimer dismissed Green’s case in 2018 citing “prior rulings that whistleblower claims cannot be made for actions that have not yet taken place;” however, the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed Judge Elsenheimer’s decision in March of 2020.
Green told the Record-Eagle that “she is grateful for the small handful of people, including Cooney, who stood up and told the truth. She said the previous administration’s words and characterization of her has haunted her, as well as potential employers’ perceptions of her.”
Analysis of the Case
Grant Parsons, Green’s lawyer, detailed the successes of the case in an interview with WNN and called Green a “hero” for her whistleblowing. “The old administration fired her and the new administration came in and took another look at it. The settlement is not only a settlement of the facts but also a result of the change in the administration,” Parsons said.
Parsons also noted that the 2016 Michigan Supreme Court case Pace v. Edel-Harrison introduced an important aspect of Michigan’s WPA: it changed the law so that an individual could not file a lawsuit under the WPA for reporting something that had not yet happened. “I would like to see Michigan revisit this idea of the Pace ruling. It’s contrary to public policy to have an employee wait to blow the whistle on something,” Parsons said. He credits Judge Cooney’s support of Green’s case as a large help, praising his bravery in sticking to his beliefs that Green was retaliated against: “Cooney stepped up and told the truth.”
As advice to potential whistleblowers, Parsons reminds everyone that there is “very short statute of limitations in Michigan” for the WPA: according to the law, whistleblowers have 90 days “after the occurrence of the alleged violation of this act” to bring a civil action. “It usually takes people longer than that to see they’ve been mistreated,” Parsons said. “It takes people a while to decide to file a claim, so they need to be very aware of the 90-day statute of limitations.” As a plus, Parsons said that in the Michigan WPA, the “damages and attorney fees are very strong.”
Parsons also advised that “A whistleblower always needs corroborating testimony,” but he understands that “it’s hard to get sometimes because all your witnesses are dependent on the employer.” If possible, a whistleblower should “find a witness who isn’t afraid of being fired” to aid them in their case. Parsons also mentioned that witnesses who testify in a case who are then retaliated against can also qualify as whistleblowers themselves. In Green’s case, Parsons was grateful for “the willingness of governmental officials who worked with my client to step forward and tell the truth.”