DeKalb County, Georgia hired two employees—Daisy Abdur-Rahman and Ryan Petty—in 2004 to monitor grease traps and investigate sewer overflows caused by restaurants improperly disposing of fats, oils, and grease. The inspectors wanted to do a good job, so they repeatedly asked for records of County sewer spills so they could locate “hot spots.” Their boss found this annoying and not only denied the request, but allegedly told them they were “rocking the boat.”
Despite Abdur-Rahman and Petty’s suspicions that the County was hiding something, the records were actually available in a nearby office, and an investigation revealed that the County had reported spills in accordance with state law. Nonetheless, the County became fed up with the inspectors’ constant requests and terminated them for insubordination and disruptive behavior.
Abdur-Rahman and Petty challenged their terminations, claiming they were fired in retaliation for engaging in protected whistleblower activity under the Federal Water Pollution Control Act. An administrative law judge (ALJ) with the U.S. Department of Labor heard their case and agreed that Abdur-Rahman and Petty had engaged in protected activity. However, the ALJ determined that it was not the motivating factor behind their termination and dismissed their complaint.
Abdur-Rahman and Petty appealed to an Administrative Review Board (Board). The Board found in their favor, holding that their protected activity did not have to be the sole factor for their termination, but merely a factor. After the inspectors showed that their protected activity was a motivating factor, the burden was on the County to show that it would have fired them even if they hadn’t “rocked the boat.” The Board found that the County was unable to separate its mixed legal and illegal motives and ruled in favor of Abdur-Rahman and Petty. The Eleventh Circuit agreed. DeKalb County v. U.S. Dep’t of Labor (11th Cir. 2016).
Don’t forget that in addition to the protection public-sector employees have from the Constitution, there is also protection under federal whistleblower statutes. If you have any questions about a termination following a complaint by an employee, give us a call. We can help.