MN Supreme Court Clarifies "Good Faith" in Whistleblower Claims

August 11, 2017 – This week, the Minnesota Supreme Court issued a landmark decision clarifying the Minnesota Whistleblower Act’s definition of a “good faith” report in whistleblower claims. Prior to the decision, Minnesota courts required a whistleblower to show they acted with the intent to “expose an illegality”—a judicially created requirement not expressly found in the statute. In a unanimous decision, the Court held that a 2013 amendment to the Act eliminated this requirement, leaving only the statutory definition of “good faith.”

In the case, Friedlander v. Edwards Lifesciences, et al., appellant-employee James Friedlander alleged that during his employment he witnessed his supervisors engage in violations of law, including breach of contract, and reported the conduct to his superiors and others at Edwards Lifesciences. The parties did not dispute that the people to whom he reported the conduct already knew. Following his report, the company terminated him. The company argued that Friedlander did not “blow the whistle” or “expose an illegality” because it already knew of the conduct in question, and, therefore, his report was not protected under the Minnesota Whistleblowers Act. The issue on appeal was whether a 2013 amendment to the Act eliminated the judicially created requirement that a whistleblower act with the purpose of “exposing an illegality.”

The Minnesota Whistleblower Act prohibits an employer from terminating, disciplining, threatening, discriminating or retaliating against an employee who acted in good faith to report a violation, suspected violation or planned violation of a state or federal law. The Act also protects an employee who refuses to perform an action the employee believes violates a state or federal law.

Prior to 2013, the Minnesota Whistleblower Act did not define the term “good faith.” Consequently, courts interpreted “good faith” to require whistleblowers to act with “the purpose of blowing the whistle, i.e., to expose an illegality.” Although this language was not expressly included in the whistleblower statute, under this interpretation, courts held that an employee could not be a whistleblower if the report was made to someone in the company who claimed to already know of the unlawful conduct. In other words, a report could not be in “good faith” and would not be protected under the statute if the illegality was already known. In effect, the employer could terminate the employee without liability even if the employee intended to expose the illegality, whether known or unknown.

In 2013, the Minnesota Legislature amended the Minnesota Whistleblower Act to define “good faith” to mean “conduct that does not violate section 181.932, subdivision 3.” Subdivision 3 excludes from “good faith” statements or disclosures the employee knows are false or in reckless disregard of the truth. At the heart of the dispute was whether the Act, following the 2013 amendment, continued to include the requirement that a “good faith” whistleblower act with the purpose of “exposing an illegality.” The court unanimously said no, thereby abrogating this judicially created requirement. Under the amended language, “reports are made in ‘good faith’ as long as those reports are not knowingly false or made with reckless disregard of the truth.”

The decision is a victory for employees who have otherwise found it difficult to seek redress for unlawful termination, retaliation, harassment and/or threats for their reports of unlawful conduct by the employer under the Minnesota Whistleblower Act. Frances Baillon, firm partner and President of the Minnesota Chapter National Employment Lawyers Association (MN-NELA), helped draft the amicus curiae brief on behalf of MN-NELA in support of the “good faith” definition adopted by the court in this decision.

Protect Your Whistleblower Rights
If you believe your employer has retaliated against you for reporting a violation, suspected violation or planned violation by your employer of a state or federal law, our Minneapolis, Minnesota whistleblower lawyers want to hear from you. Baillon Thome Jozwiak & Wanta LLP is dedicated to protecting the rights of employees and has substantial experience representing facing whistleblower retaliation. For more information about the Minnesota Whistleblower Act and your rights, contact us at 612-252-3570 or click here for a free initial consultation.

Click here to read the Court's opinion.