Texas Supreme Court rejects whistleblower case against school district

The Texas Supreme Court today dismissed a former school principal’s whistleblower lawsuit, finding that a complaint to school officials about alleged violations of asbestos laws did not qualify as a good-faith report to an “appropriate law enforcement authority” under Government Code, sec. 554.002. The ruling was the third this year involving a school district or other public employee reporting allegations of wrongdoing internally rather than to an outside law enforcement authority.

The statute protects public employees from adverse personnel action if they report law violations to appropriate law enforcement authorities. Sec. 554.002 defines an appropriate authority as one authorized to regulate under or to enforce the law alleged to be violated or to investigate or prosecute criminal law violations.

In an unsigned opinion, the court dismissed a lawsuit filed against Ysleta ISD by the principal at the Robert F. Kennedy Pre-K Academy, who had sent a memorandum to his immediate supervisor reporting various “asbestos hazards” in the school that he said were making staff members sick. He later testified that he reported his concerns to several school officials, including the superintendent and district trustees.

According to the court’s opinion, the whistleblower claim was filed after the principal requested transfer to another school and was indefinitely suspended.

The principal claimed the school district violated the federal Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (15 U.S.C. sec. 2641), saying that provisions in the federal law requiring a school district to develop an asbestos management plan transformed the superintendent and school board trustees into appropriate law enforcement authorities empowered to regulate under the law and not merely responsible for ensuring internal compliance. The district said the asbestos law gives regulatory authority to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In dismissing the lawsuit against Ysleta ISD, the court cited its earlier rulings involving another school district and a university medical center. In both cases it held that complaints to internal officials were not good-faith complaints where the officials had no authority to enforce the allegedly violated laws outside the institution itself.

The 83rd Legislature considered related legislation in 2013. SB 121 by Rodriguez would have amended Government Code, sec. 554.002 to prohibit a school district in El Paso County from suspending or terminating an employee who in good faith reported in writing a violation of law to certain district or school employees. The bill passed the Senate and was recommended for the Local and Consent calendar by the House State Affairs Committee, but it did not pass before the session ended.

by Janet Elliott

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