The District of Columbia Court of Appeals recently sided with D.C. government officials embroiled in a seven-year dispute with police officers who had alleged violations of the city's whistleblower protection law.
In an opinion (PDF) published November 15, the court vacated a judgment in favor of one of the officers who sued, concluding that the jury was wrong to find that he had a valid claim under the whistleblower protection law. The court also upheld a trial judge's decision at an earlier stage of proceedings to grant the city summary judgment on claims brought by five other officers involved in the case.
City officials praised the decision. D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan said in a statement that he was gratified that the court had recognized "the officers' patent misuse of [the] District's Whistleblower Protection Act in this lawsuit." But police union head Kristopher Baumann said in a statement that the ruling "eviscerates" protections for city government employees.
According to the opinion, the dispute dated back to 2004, when Metropolitan Police Department officers involved in the case had asked for authorization to take an off-duty job as security guards at the Gallery Place mall in downtown Washington. The requests to take the off-duty jobs were ultimately denied.
Around the same time, according to the opinion, the police department began providing the mall with a "reimbursable detail" of officers to do security. Under that arrangement, the department would arrange for on-duty officers to work overtime at the mall, and the mall would reimburse the department at a fixed rate to cover the officers' salaries.
In a lawsuit filed in 2005 in District of Columbia Superior Court, the officers who had asked for approval to do off-duty security claimed that department officials unlawfully denied their requests so that they could get the security contract instead. When the officers publicly complained, they alleged that they were faced with disciplinary action.
A Superior Court judge granted the city summary judgment on claims filed by five of the eight officers involved in the appeal. A jury heard the claims of the other three officers, ultimately finding against two and entering judgment in favor of one. The officer who won was awarded $12,665 in back pay and damages. The city appealed that judgment and the officers who lost at the summary judgment stage also appealed.
The officers were represented on appeal by Anthony Conti of Baltimore's Conti Fenn & Lawrence. Assistant Attorney General Holly Johnson argued for the city.
Judge Stephen Glickman, writing for the three-judge panel, agreed with the District that the officer who won at trial didn't have reason to think that the behavior he was purportedly blowing the whistle on was illegal. Absent that reason, he couldn't have been making a "protected disclosure" under the whistleblower law. In upholding summary judgment rulings against the other officers, the court similarly found that the plaintiffs had failed to prove they had made protected disclosures in airing their grievances.
Glickman heard the case with fellow appeals court Judge Catharine Easterly and Superior Court Judge Anthony Epstein, who had been specially designated to sit on the appellate court in this case.