Idaho Supreme Court upholds state police whistleblower case, opens door to higher damages

By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports

The Idaho Supreme Court on Friday ruled firmly in favor of an Idaho State Police whistleblower, former crash reconstructionist Brandon Eller. In a unanimous decision, the court rebuffed claims that Eller’s case did not qualify under the state Whistleblower Act and reversed a previous decision to cap his damages. Read the ruling here.

Eller sued ISP in 2015 under the Whistleblower Act. He claimed his employer retaliated against him after he testified against a Payette County Sheriff’s deputy who was involved in a fatal crash while responding to a 911 call in 2011. That deputy was later charged for a time with felony vehicular manslaughter. Eller also objected to an ISP policy that directed officers to destroy all but the final drafts of crash reconstruction reports, raising concerns that it violated the law.

In his lawsuit, Eller claimed a commanding officer accused him of lying in the stand. He received a downgrade in his performance review, and ISP later reassigned him. Eller resigned in 2014.

A lower court ruled in Eller’s favor, with a jury awarding him $1.5 million in damages. ISP challenged that award and the district court reduced it to $1 million, citing the Idaho Tort Claims Act, which limits damages.

Both ISP and Eller then appealed the case to the Supreme Court. Along with disagreement over the damage cap, ISP argued Eller’s actions were “routine job performance” that when paired with his “speculative and unproven” concerns, didn’t qualify for whistleblower protection, Friday’s ruling states.

The ruling, written by Justice Richard Bevan, concludes both Eller’s involvement in the crash case and his later concerns clearly qualify him for the protections of the Whistleblower Act.

And in a decision with clear implications for other state whistleblower cases, Bevan said Eller’s damages should be governed by the Whistleblower Act, not the Tort Claims Act. The provisions of the former are more specific to this case, he wrote: “Idaho law provides: ‘Where a statute is clear and unambiguous, the expressed intent of the legislature shall be given effect without engaging in statutory construction.’ In addition, where two statutes conflict, courts should apply the more recent and more specifically applicable statute.

“… Rather than protect individuals as victims of general governmental torts and damages—as under the ITCA — the Whistleblower Act provides an unambiguous ‘legal cause of action for public employees who experience adverse action from their employer as a result of reporting waste and violations of a law, rule or regulation,’” the opinion says.

One key difference between the two statutes: The Whistleblower Act doesn’t limit damages, while ITCA limits damages to $500,000 for each claim. Eller had two claims against ISP. The Supreme Court ordered the lower court to revisit Eller’s damages under the Whistleblower Act, without the $500,000-times-two limit.

In other words, this case could get a lot more expensive for ISP.

Nate Poppino contributed to this report.

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