Fired IDEM employee loses appeal in whistleblower dispute

A former environmental chemist who was fired from his longstanding position at the Indiana Department of Environmental Management could not convince a panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals that he was terminated for being a whistleblower.

Following the termination of his employment with IDEM after 21 years, the State Employees’ Appeals Commission dismissed Timothy Brown’s complaint of being fired in violation of Indiana’s Whistleblower Law. Brown’s termination letter, however, stated he was fired for running samples without verifying a valid calibration and for reporting invalid data as valid.

The Marion Superior Court initially reversed and remanded for Brown, who alleged in his complaint that he was fired based on three emails he sent to his supervisor concerning IDEM’s alleged misuse of public resources that “could be viewed as federal grant fraud …” and violation of law.

But on remand, the SEAC granted IDEM’s motion for summary judgment, finding that Brown’s emails constituted a “report” under the whistleblower statue, but that he failed to show the reports contained any violation of law or how IDEM was allegedly misusing funds. Additionally, it concluded that there was no causal link between Brown’s termination and his whistleblower claim.

Unlike his first petition for judicial review, the trial court denied Brown on his second petition, prompting him to appeal.

In affirming, the Indiana Court of Appeals first noted that the trial court did not err in determining that the law-of-the-case doctrine was inapplicable for several reasons, one of which being that the doctrine is applicable only when an appellate court determines a legal issue and not a trial court.

It further agreed with the trial court that Brown did not report the misuse of public resources or a violation of law, noting the identical language of the statutes at issue in Coutee v. Lafayette Neighborhood Hous. Servs., Inc., 792 N.E.2d 907, 914 (Ind. Ct. App. 2003) and the case at hand.

“In sum, Brown never once mentioned public funds or resources; he has not shown how he alleged any violation of law and a disinterested observer could not reasonably conclude IDEM was violating any law based on Brown’s emails. As such, Brown did not report the misuse of public resources or a violation of law protected by the WBL. Therefore, the trial court did not err in determining that the SEAC’s decision that Brown was not a whistleblower was not arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of discretion,” Judge Margret Robb wrote for the appellate court.

Lastly, it concluded that the SEAC’s decision was supported by substantial evidence in Timothy J. Brown v. Indiana Department of Environmental Management, 19A-MI-02051.

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