On August 15, 2013, a Washington County, Minnesota jury awarded the former dean of a for-profit university $395,000 under Minnesota’s whistleblower law (M.S.A. § 181.932). This verdict is consistent with the substantial verdicts we have seen of late in whistleblower cases around the country.
Background: Plaintiff Heidi Weber (Weber) was the dean of the medical assistant program at Globe University (the University), a for-profit university in Woodbury, Minnesota. She held that position for a little over a year, and previously served as an adjunct faculty member and program chair. During her tenure as dean, she allegedly complained to Globe officials that the school used falsified job placement numbers, lied to students about salary ranges and job placement statistics, failed to train students adequately, and paid commissions to admissions staff to boost enrollment. The University terminated Weber’s employment in 2011, allegedly based on her “poor performance and lack of leadership.”
Court Proceedings: Weber brought suit against the University under Minnesota’s whistleblower law, alleging that she was discharged for complaining of the above-referenced conduct. A central issue in the case was whether Weber’s complaints to her supervisor could serve as a cognizable basis for a whistleblower action under Minnesota law. The University argued that Weber did not engage in activity protected by the statute, as she complained to her supervisors, and not to an outside official or agency. Ultimately, the court and the jury found that Weber had indeed engaged in protected activity.
Jury Verdict: On August 15, 2013, after a week-long trial, a jury concluded that the University violated the Minnesota whistleblower law and ordered the University to pay Weber $395,000. The award included $205,000 for lost wages and $190,000 for emotional distress.
Implications: This adverse jury verdict underscores the risks attendant to claims under the wide range of state law claims around the country. Moreover, it dispels the notion that private companies are essentially immune from whistleblower concerns. Indeed, it serves as a wake-up call to private employers in myriad industries that they are vulnerable to such attacks and should take preventative measures to minimize the risks.