19 April 2021

Michigan Court of Appeals Allows Teacher Aide to Move Forward with Whistleblower Claim

The Michigan Court of Appeals recently released its unpublished opinion in Harlan v Detroit Public Schools Community School District, a case involving a teacher’s aide (Harlan) who was terminated for allegedly falsifying a report of assault committed by a student.   The pertinent facts are as follows.

At the end of the school day, Harlan began dismissing and excusing students in the class who were finished packing up their work stations, but one student failed to comply with her instructions.  When the student attempted to leave the classroom, Harlan blocked him.  Harlan alleged that the student pushed her out of the way and fled.  Harlan then reported the incident to a DPSCD security officer.  Upon questioning, the student said he may have touched Harlan as he attempted to get by her, but that he had meant her no harm.  Video surveillance showed the student’s arms never left the side of his body, contradicting Harlan’s report.  Harlan was placed on leave for violating a rule pertaining to falsifying school reports. An investigation was launched, which determined Harlan misused the word “assault” and recommended Harlan be placed on a three‑day suspension.  Instead, DPSCD terminated her employment.  Harlan then initiated legal action against DPSCD, asserting it violated the Whistleblower’s Protection Act (WPA).

Harlan argued that her termination was a result of her report of the student assault, and the allegation that she falsified school records was pretext.  DPSCD asserted Harlan’s WPA violation claim failed because Harlan was reporting an incident within the school in order to investigate internally, and thus her report would not be considered a report of a potential violation of the law, as required by the WPA.  Further, DPSCD stated it had a legitimate business reason for terminating Harlan, citing her lack of credibility and poor judgment on her incident reports as she refused to amend her claims that the student put his hands on her, despite video evidence appearing to suggest otherwise.

The Court of Appeals found genuine issues of material fact for a jury to determine.  Although the trial court had properly determined that Harlan engaged in protected activity and was terminated, the appellate court opined that the trial court erred when the trial court concluded Harlan failed to establish a causal connection between her reporting the assault and her ultimate termination.  The court concluded that Harlan had presented direct evidence of the school district’s intent via DPSCD Superintendent Dr. Vitti’s admission that Harlan was terminated because of her report and poor judgment.  Further, although the trial court concluded Harlan knew that the report she made was false, the appellate court considered the issue one of credibility – for a jury to decide.  The court found that a jury could view the video of the incident and determine that the student’s physical contact with Harlan met the definition of assault.  Consequently, the court remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings.

The full opinion can be accessed here.