WHAT QUALIFIES AS WHISTLEBLOWING UNDER TENNESSEE LAW?

  Recently the Tennessee Supreme Court clarified what an employee must do to qualify as a whistleblower in order to state a claim for retaliatory discharge under Tennessee law.  In Haynes v. Formac Stables, Inc., the plaintiff, a horse groomer for the defendant, claimed he suffered an injury to the head when kicked by a Tennessee Walking Horse.  The plaintiff claimed that when he complained of the injury to the owner the owner only allowed for a veterinarian to seal the wound and would not allow him to receive proper medical treatment.  He further alleged that he was terminated after he complained repeatedly to the owner about headaches stemming from the lack of proper medical care.  The plaintiff did not complain to anyone other than the owner. The Tennessee Supreme Court, in affirming the decision to dismiss the complaint, held that in order to qualify as a whistleblower and state a claim for retaliatory discharge under Tennessee law the employee must report the employer’s wrongdoing to someone other than the wrongdoer.  This means that when the wrongdoer is a manager, owner, or highest ranking officer within the company the employee may have to report the wrongdoing to an outside entity. This decision does not change the fact that under Tennessee law an employee can state a claim for retaliatory discharge by simply refusing to participate in illegal conduct, because the cause of action for refusing to participate does not require reporting of illegal conduct.  It also has no impact on claim for workers’ compensation retaliatory discharge. While this decision is a win for employers it does not change the fact that all employee complaints should be promptly and thoroughly investigated.  The decision also illustrates that it is important for employers to train supervisors to either (1) properly investigate complaints; or (2) report them to the persons within the organization who are responsible for doing so.

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