An accounts receivable clerk at a law firm who reported the firm’s allegedly illegal billing practices to the FBI didn’t have a claim for wrongful discharge under West Virginia law, the state’s high court said Nov. 22.
Christine Blanda’s attempt to create an exception to the rule that at-will employees aren’t entitled to whistleblower status was rejected in an opinion by Chief Justice Elizabeth D. Walker of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.
Blanda believed that Martin & Seibert LC billed clients attorney rates for work done by nonattorneys. Her concerns were dismissed by the firm, but she feared the firm was going to make her the scapegoat if anyone else discovered the discrepancies.
Blanda was fired for downloading office files to protect herself. The firm was later shuttered, after an FBI investigation based on her tip.
Blanda sued the firm in federal court under the Dodd-Frank Act, but her whistleblower claim was rejected. She then alleged the firm’s billing practices were illegal under state law and the firm therefore violated public policy by firing her.
The federal court asked the state court to weigh in on the issue.
Public employees are specifically protected by the state whistleblower law and the general duty to report suspected criminal conduct doesn’t warrant extending that protection to private employees, the state court said.
Justice Margaret L. Workman dissented, saying the court should have recognized a public-policy exception in this case.
Neely & Callaghan represented Blanda. Richard M. Wallace of Charleston, W. Va., represented the firm.
The case is Blanda v. Martin & Seibert LC, 2019 BL 452573, W. Va., No. 19-0317, 11/22/19.