Detroit, MI — A unanimous Michigan Court of Appeals panel ruled that an environmental whistleblower case can proceed to trial, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The case involves a Gratiot Conservation District manager who was fired after reporting pollution violations and financial irregularities.
Robin Berryhill served as a “Grant 319” project manager with the Conservation District. Her job was to monitor non-point sources of water pollution. In January of 2002, the Conservation District fired Berryhill for reporting major water quality violations, including pollution discharges and fish kills in Pine Creek, to the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, contrary to District directives.
In addition to refusing to obey the illegal orders, Berryhill reported dubious fiscal management of the Conservation District, including the practice of “double dipping” grant money” i.e., accepting duplicate payment for the same activity from more than one source.
On March 10, 2003, the 29th Circuit Court dismissed Berryhill’s complaint, filed under Michigan’s Whistleblower’s Protection Act. Last week, the state Court of Appeals reversed that dismissal, characterized the earlier action of trial court as “factually and legally flawed.” Berryhill’s suit seeks reinstatement, lost wages and other appropriate damages. It will now be scheduled for a jury trial.
Berryhill is represented in the suit by Scott A. Brooks, an attorney with the Detroit labor law firm of Gregory, Moore, Jeakle, Heinen & Brooks, and PEER, a national environmental whistleblower defense organization. “This is a great victory for the community and for Robin Berryhill, who will now have her day in court, ” stated Scott A. Brooks. “The irony in this case is that the Gratiot Conservation District is supposed to be safeguarding the community’s land and water; but in this case it ordered an employee to ignore serious pollution violations and then fired her when she refused.”
“This case is about whether a public servant can be terminated for trying to protect her community from the threat of contaminated drinking water,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Michigan’s environmental laws become useless if people who report pollution violations may be summarily fired for doing their civic duty.”