Wednesday, August 27, 2008

After court ruling, UC employees question whistle-blowing

Lawmakers and University of California employees are pushing to overturn a court ruling that essentially declared UC exempt from most whistle-blower lawsuits.

The California Supreme Court ruled last month that UC employees cannot seek damages in court if the university properly investigated their whistle-blower claims. That exemption does not apply to other state agencies, including the California State University system.

Critics have called UC "the fox guarding the henhouse," and even some Supreme Court justices suggested that the Legislature amend whistle-blower laws to better protect university employees.

The court's ruling "will act powerfully to defeat the purposes of the Whistleblower Protection Act," three justices wrote in a separate opinion that nonetheless upheld the university's exemption. The case involved employees at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

UC administrators were unable to say how many whistle-blower complaints are filed by university employees, or how many are found to have merit. Richard Blum, chairman of the UC Board of Regents, declined to comment.

UC officials said they are open to an amendment, but only if it ensures that whistle-blowers seek other solutions before going to court. But UC attorneys also said the university takes such complaints seriously, even without the threat of court proceedings.

Employees should not be afraid to bring forward improper behavior or situations, UC Advertisementattorney Eric Behrens said.

"If we find that there was retaliation, we do something about it," he said. "This decision shouldn't deter people from filing whistle-blower complaints, because they will be investigated by the university."

Word of the July 31 Supreme Court ruling is still filtering down to employees, said Marjorie Wallace, a Walnut Creek attorney who, along with colleague Nancy Balles, has represented UC whistle-blowers. Once the word is out, the ruling could have a chilling effect on complaints, Wallace said.

"It just seems like such an inherent conflict of interest," she said. "What possible rationale is there for exempting the University of California from whistle-blower (suits)? "

Two legislators immediately introduced bills attempting to overturn the Supreme Court ruling. Despite UC's unique constitutional independence, it should still be subject to the same whistle-blower laws as other state agencies, said the sponsor of one, state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco.

"One of the fundamental rights of anyone is to be able to speak freely," he said. "We ought not to put these workers in the untenable position of having UC be their judge and jury."

Some employees said they have seen no evidence that the university takes their complaints seriously. One worker said she has filed three complaints over what she sees as major safety deficiencies, only to watch the university dismiss her grievances.

"They are judge and jury. I found that out," said the UC Berkeley employee, who asked to remain anonymous because of the threat of retaliation. "It's really stacked against you. It really turns off people from coming forward."

Another UC Berkeley worker said he expects to be fired when he files his latest whistle-blower complaint in the coming weeks; a retaliatory firing would be against the law. Employees are punished for caring about the university, he said.

"I am loyal to the university," said the man, who also requested anonymity because of a fear of retaliation. "I am paying the price for my loyalty."

  • Supreme Court agrees to hear BCE appeal
  • BCE shares rise as Supreme Court agrees to speedy hearing
  • Court to rule on same-sex marriage Thursday
  • More requests to stay same-sex marriage ruling