• Youth Program Director's Disclosures Not Entitled to Protections of the D.C. Whistleblower Protection Act
  • December 21, 2010 | Author: Eric Leppo
  • Law Firm: Semmes, Bowen & Semmes A Professional Corporation - Baltimore Office
  • In this recently issued Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Opinion, the Court affirmed the trial court's dismissal of Michael Williams' claim under the District of Columbia Whistleblower Protection Act, but reversed a dismissal of his defamation claim.

    Michael Williams was the Associate Director of Athletic Programs for the District of Columbia's Department of Parks and Recreation ("DPR"). In this role, he administered DPR's youth recreational basketball leagues. The basketball program included both a "pee wee" division for children between the ages of six and eight, and a "pony" division for children ages nine and ten. Importantly, the cut-off date for separating between the two divisions was April 5, 2009, that is, children who would turn nine before April 5, 2009 were to play in the "pony" division with the older children, as opposed to the "pee wee" division.

    In February of 2009, Michael Williams began receiving complaints that twin sons of District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty, were improperly playing in the "pee wee" division as their ninth birthday would occur on March 8, 2009. Michael Williams brought this information to the attention of Clark Ray, the head of DPR. Mr. Ray looked into the issue and informed Mr. Williams that the Mayor's sons would remain in the pee wee division. Michael Williams then had an associate in his office contact Mayor Fenty directly by telephone regarding the issue.

    Several days later, Michael Williams was informed by Mr. Ray that he was being terminated for budgetary reasons. Mr. Williams then testified before the District of Columbia Council regarding the basketball league issue with the Mayor's sons and his subsequent termination. In his lawsuit, he alleged that District of Columbia government employees further retaliated against him by making defamatory statements about him, specifically that he was terminated for embezzlement.

    Mr. Williams filed suit against the District of Columbia alleging a violation of the Whistleblower Protection Act, D.C. Code § 1-615.51 (2001). Like most whistleblower protection laws, the D.C. statute is intended to provide protection to government employees who step forward to report waste, fraud, abuse of authority, or violation of laws. Specifically, the act prohibits a supervisor from taking a "prohibited personnel action," including terminating an employee, in retaliation for that employee's having made a "protected disclosure." D.C. Code §§ 1-615.52, 53 (2001). Mr. Williams' suit also made a claim of defamation based on the rumors that he was terminated for embezzling government funds.

    The trial court granted the District of Columbia's Motion to Dismiss all claims, and Michael Williams appealed. As to the Whistleblower Protection Act claim, the trial court found that the information about Mayor Fenty's sons playing in the younger league was in the public domain, and therefore not a protected disclosure under the statute. The Court declined to adopt this broad view that an employee is not entitled to the Act's protections when appropriate, simply because someone in the public may already know the information. However, the Court noted that in this particular situation, the information about Mayor Fenty's sons and the basketball league was not just known by some in the public, but had been vocalized by multiple people and become a matter of public discourse.

    The Court stated, "We do not doubt that Williams's 'disclosure' was commendable and well-intentioned, but he did not bring himself within the protection of the DC-WPA and was "not serving [its particular] purpose . . . by disclosing what [was] already known." Williams, at *8-9.

    The Court went on to address the trial court's dismissal of Mr. Williams' defamation claim. To state a claim of defamation a plaintiff must show: "(1) that the defendant made a false and defamatory statement concerning the plaintiff; (2) that the defendant published the statement without privilege to a third party; (3) that the defendant's fault in publishing the statement amounted to at least negligence; and (4) either that the statement was actionable as a matter of law irrespective of special harm or that its publication caused the plaintiff special harm." Beeton v. District of Columbia, 779 A.2d 918, 923 (D.C. 2001). The Court held that taking all well-pleaded facts as true, Mr. Williams' claim for defamation was sufficient to survive a Motion to Dismiss on the pleadings.