“Bruce Pearl” Kicks Employee in Head Prompting Tennessee Supreme Court to Resolve Court of Appeals Split
Bruce Pearl is still generating controversy in Tennessee. But this time it is a Tennessee walking horse named Bruce Pearl, rather than the basketball coach. And the end result is a decision from the Tennessee Supreme Court that may lead Tennessee employees to more frequently report company wrongdoing outside of normal internal reporting channels.
It all started when Bruce Pearl, the horse, kicked Charles Haynes, a horse groom, injuring his head. Haynes asked the stable owner for time off to seek medical care. The stable owner refused and allegedly told Haynes that the only treatment permitted was for a stable veterinarian to seal his wound with horse sutures. (No word on whether Bruce Pearl was subjected to any sanctions for the incident.) Haynes submitted to treatment from the vet but then repeatedly complained to the stable owner of severe headaches. The stable owner ultimately fired Haynes, allegedly because he would not keep quiet about having been stitched up like a horse.
Haynes brought common law and statutory whistleblowing claims for retaliatory discharge against the stable owner in Tennessee state court. The trial court granted a motion to dismiss on the basis that the only person Haynes ever complained to was the wrongdoer at issue (i.e. the stable owner). Although the Court of Appeals affirmed, the divisions of that court have been split on this issue. Both the Middle and Western Sections of the Court of the Appeals had previously held that reporting to the wrongdoer was insufficient to qualify for whistleblower status. In contrast, the Eastern Section held that it was enough if the wrongdoer reported to was the manager, owner, or highest ranking officer of the company.
The Tennessee Supreme Court then granted an appeal and in Haynes v. Formac Stables, Inc. resolved the split. No. W2013-00535-SC-R11-CV (March 27, 2015). The Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal, holding that reporting to the wrongdoer was not enough, even if the wrongdoer was the company owner. In so doing, the Court joined a majority of courts from other states and federal courts examining whistleblowing claims under similar state and federal laws. The Tennessee Supreme Court and these other courts emphasize that such laws are intended to encourage exposure of illegal or unsafe practices. Yet, as the Court noted in Haynes, “[w]hen an employee reports wrongdoing only to the wrongdoer – who is already aware of his or her own misconduct – there has been no exposure of the employer’s illegal or unsafe practices.” The Court further emphasized that “[s]uch an employee necessarily fails to ‘blow the whistle’ in a meaningful fashion because the employee has made no ‘effort to bring to light an illegal or unsafe practice.’”
Although the Supreme Court did not suggest what outside individual or entity employees like Haynes should report to, the Court did acknowledge that its decision could eliminate the option of internal reporting under certain circumstances. Tennessee companies should therefore be aware that this decision could lead to more reports of wrongdoing being made outside the normal internal reporting channels.