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N.Y.: Fired Whistle-blower Need Not Identify Laws and Rules Violated

By Rita Zeidner  6/16/2014
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An employee claiming retaliation under New York’s whistle-blower statute is not required to identify the specific law, rule or regulation allegedly violated by her employer, according to New York’s highest court. 

The N.Y. Court of Appeals unanimously reversed a ruling of the Appellate Division. It allowed the plaintiff — a former nonprofit executive — to move forward with her whistle-blower retaliation claim. 

Wendy Webb-Weber was the chief operating officer for Community Action for Human Services Inc., a social service agency for the mentally and physically disabled. The organization is subject to state oversight.

Terminated in September 2009, Webb subsequently sued Community Action and the organization’s chief executive under New York’s whistle-blower statute. She claimed the firing was illegal retaliation for registering complaints with public agencies concerning the organization’s policies and practices.

According to court documents, Webb-Weber had complained to her boss and other Community Action representatives about the falsification of patient medication and treatment records, inadequate fire safety, mistreatment of residents and deficiencies in patient care and in the facility itself. When those conditions continued unabated, she notified state officials who subsequently cited the organization for various health and safety violations.

The whistle-blower statute states: “An employer shall not take any retaliatory personnel action against an employee because such employee … discloses, or threatens to disclose to a supervisor or to a public body an activity, policy or practice of the employer that is in violation of law, rule or regulation that either “creates and presents a substantial and specific danger to the public health or safety, or … constitutes health care fraud.”

The defendants sought to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a cause of action. The trial court allowed plaintiff’s whistle-blower retaliation claim to survive but the Appellate Division reversed and dismissed the claim.

The Court of Appeals, however, reversed the Appellate Division, finding that the plain language of the statute “does not impose any requirement that a plaintiff identify the specific ‘law, rule or regulation’ violated” as part of a whistle-blower claim.

The court concluded that Webb-Weber’s allegations, “particularly those that assert that the sanctions and violations were issued by public bodies, allegedly as a result of plaintiff’s complaints, sufficiently support plaintiff’s allegation that defendants violated various laws, rules or regulations.”

Webb-Weber v. Community Action for Human Services Inc., N.Y. Ct. App., 2014 NY Slip Op 03428 (May 13, 2014). 

Rita Zeidner is a freelance business writer and former senior writer for HR Magazine.
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