The Eastern District of Pennsylvania recently ruled that an employee’s SOX whistleblower retaliation claim failed as a matter of law because no causal connection existed between his complaints and termination and the employer would have taken the same adverse action in the absence of protected activity.  Weist v. Tyco Electronics Corp.No. 10-cv-3288 (E.D.  Pa. Apr. 10, 2015).  We previously blogged this case here and here, as it made a closely watched trip to the Third Circuit on hotly contested issues of protected activity.

Background

In 2008, Plaintiff, a Manager of the Company’s Accounts Payable Department, allegedly began raising internal challenges to expenses and invoices submitted in connection with company events, including a $350,000 event at a Bahamas resort with mermaid greeters, costumed pirates and fire dancers.  Plaintiff alleged that the Company’s reporting of the expenditures violated Company policies or federal tax laws.  In August 2009, eight months after Plaintiff’s last complaint, employees raised concerns regarding Plaintiff’s workplace conduct to Human Resources.  A Human Resources employee unfamiliar with his whistleblower complaint conducted an investigation and recommended termination.  Following his termination, Plaintiff brought suit under Section 806 of SOX alleging, among other things, that he was placed under investigation and subsequently terminated because of his internal complaints.

The District Court’s Decision

Following an appeal to the Third Circuit on issues of protected activity, the district court granted the Company summary judgment on causation grounds.  The court first ruled that Plaintiff could not establish that his internal complaints were causally connected to his termination.  Central to the court’s reasoning was that the Human Resources employee who investigated his alleged misconduct and recommended termination was unaware of Plaintiff’s complaints.  The court further noted that the company treated Plaintiff favorably following his complaints; e.g., it recognized his 30th anniversary with the company, paid him a bonus and provided a positive performance evaluation.

Second, the court ruled that clear and convincing evidence established that the Company would have terminated Plaintiff’s employment even in the absence of protected activity.  The court stressed that Human Resources conducted a thorough investigation, the investigator had no knowledge of Plaintiff’s alleged protected activity, the witnesses corroborating the complaints about Plaintiff had no knowledge of or interest in his protected activity, and Plaintiff gave inconsistent answers during the investigation.

Implications

This decision is a welcome advancement for employers — particularly in light of recent ARB causation-based decisions.  Moreover, it underscores the importance and value of conducting a thorough and impartial investigation before taking adverse employment actions.