The Court of Appeals Western District on July 28 reinstated a lawsuit by a caregiver who alleges he was fired for blowing the whistle on his employer.
Michael Jaeger filed a wrongful-termination suit in 2017 in Jackson County Circuit Court against Resources for Human Development Inc., a not-for-profit corporation that serves individuals with developmental disabilities. Jaeger alleges that he refused orders from RHD to restrict one of his clients from communicating and having contact with others.
According to the opinion, Jaeger reported RHD to EITAS, a statutorily created agency in Jackson County that provides public funding and oversight for the companies such as RHD. (The agency’s name stands for “Empowering Individuals Through Advocacy & Support,” according to its website.)
EITAS allegedly told RHD that its directives to Jaeger would violate the client’s due process rights. Jaeger alleges that he then was terminated for having reported RHD’s actions.
A Jackson County judge dismissed Jaeger’s suit for failure to state a claim. But the Western District said that, at this early stage, the suit should be allowed to proceed.
“This unique factual situation is one contemplated by the public policy exception to at-will employment,” Judge W. Douglas Thomson wrote. Judges Anthony Rex Gabbert and Edward R. Ardini Jr. concurred.
Generally, at-will workers can be fired for any reason or no reason. Missouri law recognizes some narrow exceptions, however, including for whistleblowers who report an employer to superiors or third parties for their violations of law or public policy. Jaeger argued that his actions fall under that exception.
Jaeger’s claims from his April 2016 termination predate a 2017 state law that codified whistleblower actions in statute. The same law also limited the damages that can be recovered and required the employee to show that the discrimination was the “motivating factor” behind the adverse-employment action.
Jaeger’s suit stemmed from common law set out in a trio of Missouri Supreme Court rulings in 2010 that recognized a cause of action for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. One of those cases, Margiotta v. Christian Hospital Northeast-Northwest, said a fired employee must show a specific constitutional provision, state law or rule has being violated, rather than rely on a general sense that something was being handled poorly.
In its brief, RHD argued that it was not “on clear notice that its alleged conduct was proscribed.” But the Western District found it significant that EITAS actually advised RHD of the violation right before Jaeger was terminated.
“Jaeger alleges that there is a rule imposed by a governmental body that prior to the restriction of their rights, clients are entitled to procedural due process, a cornerstone of our Constitution,” Thomson wrote. “RHD knew that accepting taxpayer money came with rules it must follow. The rules were intended to protect developmentally disabled clients, a vulnerable population. Such clients cannot advocate for their rights themselves, and Jaeger reported the alleged violations on Client’s behalf. This is sufficient under the facts of this case for the petition to survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim.”
Ted Kapke of Kapke Willerth in Lee’s Summit, an attorney for Jaeger, said he is pleased that after several years of litigation the parties can finally get to the merits of the claim. He said it’s exactly the kind of case for which whistleblower protections were intended, made all the more clear by the involvement of the EITAS agency.
“I don’t think the court is announcing a new standard whereby you have to have government action to be whistleblowing,” Kapke said. “I think they’re really using that more to illustrate the fact that we don’t have to speculate as to whether or not what was done was correct or not.”
RHD was represented by attorneys from Ogletree Deakins. Stacy M. Bunck of the firm’s Kansas City office, an attorney on the case, declined to make an immediate comment on the ruling.
The case is Jaeger v. Resources for Human Development Inc., WD83141.