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Maine Supreme Court sides with whistleblower

The Maine Supreme Court issued its decision in a whistleblower case, Maine Human Rights Commission et al. v. Saddleback, Inc. et al., on July 16, 2009. The Maine Human Rights Commission (MHRC) brought this case against Saddleback claiming that Saddleback had violated Maine’s Whistleblower Protection Act (MWPA). The MWPA prohibits employers from retaliating against employees when they report unsafe or unlawful activities. The case centered around the termination of Robert Duggan, Jr.’s employment. (For those who are not from Maine, Saddleback is a ski area in central Maine.)

The relevant facts of the case, according to the Superior Court, were as follows:

Saddleback contracted with Mr. Duggan’s employer, Integrity Electrical Installation & Service, Inc. (Integrity), to work on the installation of some snowmaking equipment. As an employee of Integrity, Mr. Duggan worked on this project as an electrician and foreman. During the course of his work, Mr. Duggan observed Saddleback employees working in an unlawful and unsafe manner. He observed Saddleback employees drinking on the job. They were performing electrical work with high voltage electrical lines even though they did not have the proper licenses to do that kind of work. On one occasion, Mr. Duggan witnessed Saddleback employees backfilling boulders and debris on top of high voltage lines in violation of the Electrical Code.

Mr. Duggan complained about this unlawful and unsafe behavior to representatives of Saddleback and Integrity. Mr. Duggan warned Integrity that he intended to report this unlawful and unsafe behavior to the Maine State Electrician’s Examining Board; which he subsequently did. Saddleback became aware that Mr. Duggan had called the State to report them and, in retaliation, told Integrity to terminate Mr. Duggan. Integrity complied with Saddleback’s wishes and terminated Mr. Duggan. The MHRC argued that Integrity complied with Saddleback’s wishes because it was concerned about losing its contract with Saddleback.

Saddleback argued that it did not violate the MWPA because it did not employ Mr. Duggan. It argued that employees may only bring claims against their own employers under the MWPA. The Superior Court and the Maine Supreme Court rejected this argument. The courts concluded that a company like Saddleback may be held liable under the MWPA if it coerces another company to illegally retaliate against an employee.

The courts’ decisions in this case appear to be inconsistent with a case the Maine Supreme Court decided in 2008, Costain v. Sunbury Primary Care, P.A. In Costain, the Maine Supreme Court ruled that the MWPA does not protect an employee from retaliation unless she complains about her own employer’s unlawful activities. In Mr. Duggan’s case, he did not complain about his own employer’s unlawful activities–he complained about Saddleback’s unlawful activities. As a Maine employment law firm, it will be interesting to see how courts in the future will attempt to reconcile these cases.