Social Worker Gets Validated in Maine Whistleblower Suit

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on January 21, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A Maine Social Worker got an earlier Summary Judgment against her vacated by the First Circuit's Court of Appeals because of an understandable but erroneous reading of a key case.

We ask you: if your work is "excellent" and "very [good]," but you're fired soon after you blow the whistle -- is there a casual connection between your finking and your firing? A reasonable mind could probably agree there is.

The Tale of Torrey

Torrey Harrison was a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) who worked for Granite Bay Care for several months in 2010. Her job title was Training Director and her duties included training sessions for employees. She apparently performed her job duties "very well" and was an excellent trainer for the company. In Maine, LCSWs are also "mandated reporters," required by law to report to Maine's Dept. of Health and Human Services if they know or have reason to suspect the abuse or neglect of a dependent adult.

Sometime during her time there, Harrison went to the DHHS because she had seen (and attempted to rectify internally without success) a number of potential violations the DHHS ought to have known about.

Later, she (not too shocking) noticed a distinct change in the attitude towards her. This was despite assurances from her superior that she was in good graces because of previous job performance. Unfortunately, Harrison made the mistake of also voicing her concerns to other employees and engaging in what some might call insubordination (badmouthing your boss ). She soon was out of a job.

"The Job Duties Exception"

Harrison filed suit and Granite responded, moving for a summary judgment. Both parties relied on what would later be characterized as an erroneous interpretation of a key case: Winslow v. Aroonstock County. That case dealt with a carve-out exception to Maine's Whistleblower Protection Act ("the Act") known as the "job duties exception."

Granite Bay said that under Winslow, Harrison was not protected because basic company policy required her to report anything fishy she saw, regardless of the Act. Harrison contended that this was a ridiculous notion, and that the "job duties exception" as applied to her circumstances would completely gut the intent of the Maine legislature.

Vacation of the Lower Court's Ruling

District court applied Winslow on the notion that whistleblower protection shall not apply based on the employer's internal policies of applying to all. The circuit thought this was the wrong way to go about things. Newer case law had since nuanced the proper application of Winslow. In the words of the court, the mere presence of such a policy, "though perhaps relevant, is not dispositive on the question of whether a plaintiff has engaged in a protected whistleblowing activity, " as Granite has pushed.

So there it is, in the tradition of most appellate cases, the circuit affirmed once again that bright-line rules are the exception rather than rule.

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