As if Counties could forget that Court employees are just a little different, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania sent us another reminder when the Court held that the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law does not apply to judicial employees.
Gregory Thomas was a Juvenile Probation Officer serving with the Washington County Court of Common Pleas until October 2014, at which time he was allegedly forced to quit. Prior to his resignation, Thomas had been a participant in an investigation regarding the misappropriation of funds by the Juvenile Probation Office. During the investigation, it was revealed that the Chief of the Juvenile Probation Office had directed Thomas to email the County’s purchasing office in July 2014 to state that a mixed martial arts training session had taken place on June 6 and 7 in partial satisfaction of the state’s 40-hour annual training requirement. The email sought, and was granted, funding for the training. No such training actually occurred, and Thomas confirmed to the investigating detectives that he had not attended this training; he alleged that he had been told by the Chief Probation Officer to tell the detectives otherwise.
The day after his interview with the detectives, Thomas was notified that he needed to resign or he would be fired for reasons not related to the investigation. Thomas brought suit against the County, Court Administration, and others alleging that he reported wrongdoing and misappropriation of funds when he spoke to the detectives, and therefore his forced resignation violated the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law. The Defendants contended that the Whistleblower Law did not apply to judicial employees because doing so would violate the separation of powers doctrine. The trial Court granted the Defendants’ Preliminary Objections and entered judgment in their favor, finding that judicial employees are not subject to the Whistleblower Law.
In reviewing the case, the Commonwealth Court noted that the statute itself does not reference the Judiciary in the definition of “employer” or “public body,” and that prior case law established that the Legislature did not intend to include the Judiciary therein or it would violate their constitutional authority to hire, fire and supervise their employees. As such, the only way that the statute could apply was if the Court voluntarily waived sovereign immunity. Although Thomas argued that the Court had done so because the Code of Conduct for Judicial employees issued by the Administrative Offices of the Pennsylvania Courts specifically referenced the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law, the Court disagreed that “the mere description of the Whistleblower Law in a Note…demonstrates the Court’s intent to bring the Judiciary under the scope of that Law.”
In particular, the Court noted that the reference to the Whistleblower Law was found in that section of the Code of Conduct related to the Duty to Report, which requires employees to report to their immediate supervisor any attempt to induce them to violate the Code of Conduct, and that the reference was a mere description of the Law. Nothing in the reference specifically states that the Law is applicable to the Judiciary, or otherwise indicates the Court’s intent to make the Law applicable. The Commonwealth Court stated that, considering the “vigilance” and “care” that the Court takes to protect its independence and the separation of powers, more than a general description of a legislative enactment would be required to demonstrate an intent to make the Law applicable to it. Because the Law did not apply to the Courts, the Preliminary Objections were properly sustained and judgement entered for the Defendants.
The Thomas v. Grimm case should serve as a reminder that there are special considerations when dealing with HR issues involving Court employees – and the rules for hiring, firing and supervision may be slightly different. A good County HR Department must be careful, therefore, not to overstate the rights and protections of Court employees while also advocating for the County’s position on an employment decision and respecting the separate role of the Courts. Aside from the specific reminder about the unique Court-County relationship, Thomas should also serve as a reminder to all public sector employers of the unique position they and their employees are in when it comes to the employment relationship, where they must be careful to navigate their role as a public service entity providing statutory and constitutional resources to its constituents while also respecting the constitutional and other legal rights of employees.