Missouri Court Concludes Reporting Unlawful Conduct of Coworker is Protected under Whistleblower’s Protection Act

The Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District issued a decision on December 14, 2021, providing guidance on the extent of whistleblower protection under the Missouri Whistleblower’s Protection Act (Mo. Ann. Stat. § 285.575) (“Act”). In Yount v. Keller Motors, Inc., No. ED109503 (Mo. App. E.D. 2021), Jimmy Yount was a mechanic for Keller Motors for approximately four years. Yount witnessed two of his coworkers remove a part from a vehicle owned by Keller Motors. Later, Yount witnessed one of the employees selling the car part for cash and pocketing the proceeds. Yount reported what he had seen to his supervisors who rebuked Yount and instructed him to ignore the theft. Instead, Yount informed the owners of the incident. Roughly a week after meeting with the owners, Yount was terminated for “poor workmanship” and “overall unsatisfactory work performance.”

Yount then brought suit under the Act, alleging he was terminated because he engaged in protected activity by reporting his coworkers’ theft to his employer. Keller Motors argued the wording in the Act only protected employees who blew the whistle on their employer, and not for reporting of coworkers.

The court disagreed with the employer and held an employee is protected under the Act for reporting the unlawful acts or serious misconduct of coworkers. In so ruling, the court clarified language found in the Act which defines a “protected person” in part as follows:

“An employee of an employer who reports to his or her employer serious misconduct of the employer that violates a clear mandate of public policy as articulated in a constitutional provision, statute, or regulation promulgated under statute.” § 285.575.2(4).

In defining the term “employer”, the court acknowledged the Act specifically excludes “an individual employed by an employer.” § 285.575.2(2). Adhering to the plain meaning of the relevant language found in the Act would lead to a result where an employee who reports the acts of a coworker would not be protected. In deciding protection clearly was intended for reporting by coworkers of prohibited conduct, the court looked to the legislative intent of the Act.

In 2017, the Missouri legislature enacted the Act to codify common-law whistleblower protections already in place. The court in Yount held that applying the definition of the term “employer” found within the Act would lead to a contradiction with a different part of the statute which provides that the Act “is intended to codify the existing common law exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine.” § 285.575.3. By reading the Act to allow reporting by employees of coworkers, the court preserved causes of action that were previously actionable under Missouri law. Accordingly, the court held Yount’s reporting of unlawful co-employee conduct qualified for protection under the Act.

The court’s decision in Yount reinforces the premise that an employer in Missouri must take extra precaution when considering adverse action against an employee who has engaged in potentially protected conduct. Such conduct can take the form of reporting misconduct not only by the employer itself (management, ownership, etc.), but also by coworkers.

The St. Louis employment attorneys at McMahon Berger have been representing employers across the country in labor and employment matters for over sixty years and are available to discuss these issues and others. As always, the foregoing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice regarding any particular situation as every situation must be evaluated on its own facts. The choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should not be based solely on advertisements.