How do lawyers prove a wrongful discharge case?

In a case decided by the Michigan Supreme Court on February 8, 2013, the court found that the fired employee had raised sufficient evidence to present her case to the jury. The case is Debano - Griffin v Lake County and it shows how employment attorneys representing employees go about proving a key issue in most employment cases - whether the employee was fired for engaging in protected conduct.

Cheryl Debano brought her claim under the Whistleblowers' Protection Act ("WPA"), MCL 15.361. She asserted that she was fired for reporting to the county board of commissioners that her employer was engaging in acts that posed a threat to the health and safety of county residents. The WPA is a statutory exception to the at-will employment rule.  For more information about the at-will rule click here.

Ms. Debano was terminated within two weeks after she made her report. Her employer asserted that she was fired due to budget cuts. The issue for the court was whether that was the real reason or whether the reason was because of her whistleblower complaint. Like most cases, Ms. Debano did not have any "direct evidence," such as the decision-maker admitting that the reason put forth by the county was false. She instead relied on indirect evidence to prove the causal link between her termination and her protected conduct.

Disproving the reason offered by the employer is also described as showing that the offered reason was a "pretext." The court in the Debano case stated that "there are three ways a plaintiff can establish that a defendant's stated legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons are pretexts: (1) by showing the reasons had no basis in fact, (2) if they have a basis in fact, by showing that they were not the actual factors motivating the decision, or (3) if they were factors, by showing that they were jointly insufficient to justify the decision.

The employee must do more than question the employer's "business judgment." In other words, it is not sufficient to simply show that the employer was wrong about the discharge decision. To show that the decision was not, in fact, a economic decision, Ms. Debano brought forth evidence to show that the reason given by the employer was false. Specifically, she identified figures in the budget report that showed the county was not facing a budget crisis like it had claimed. She also questioned the credibility of the decision-makers who had argued that the county faced a budget crisis, noting that one of the decision-makers had requested a raise in pay around the same time he asserted that the county was in a financial crisis.

Ms. Debano also argued that the timing of her termination was indirect evidence of the county's improper motive. She noted that the termination took place soon after she "blew the whistle."

The Michigan Supreme Court found this evidence to be sufficient to merit allowing the employee to bring her evidence before a jury. The court reversed the court of appeals decision and reinstated the trial court's decision that had denied the employer's motion for summary judgment.


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