Zuckerman Law, a Washington DC firm representing whistleblowers nationwide, filed an amici curiae brief in Tucker v. DC on behalf of the Metropolitan Washington Employment Lawyers Association and the Government Accountability Project. The brief urges the DC Court of Appeals to apply the correct burden-shifting framework in DC Whistleblower Protection Act cases. In Tucker, the trial court gave pretext and business judgment instructions, both of which are contrary to the plain meaning and intent of the DC WPA.
The amici curiae brief, which was drafted by Dallas Hammer, argues that the DC Court of Appeals should correct the following three errors in the jury instructions:
- First, the trial court erred when it instructed the jury to resolve the employee’s claim by performing a McDonnell-Douglas burden-shifting analysis. Applying the McDonnell-Douglas analysis alongside the DC WPA’s standards creates a confusing and contradictory task for the jury. In the second phase of the McDonnell-Douglas analysis the employer need only argue a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its action. In contrast, the DC WPA’s statutory text explicitly mandates that the employer must prove its explanation by clear and convincing evidence, a much higher standard than the preponderance of the evidence. DC Code § 1-615.54(b). Because of this difference, the standards are fundamentally incompatible.
- Second, the trial court erred by requiring the jury to reach a decision on the plaintiff’s showing that the employer’s alleged business reasons were pretext, when the DC WPA does not require such a showing.
- Third, the trial court erred by instructing the jury to weigh the employer’s evidence of its “business judgment” against the employee’s showing by preponderance of the evidence standard rather than applying the higher, clear and convincing evidence standard to the employer’s evidence. The DC WPA applies different burdens of persuasion to the employee’s and employer’s showings. See DC Code § 1-615.54(b). A whistleblower’s initial showing is weighed under the “preponderance of the evidence.” This means necessarily that the employer’s evidence of a legitimate non-retaliatory reason for the employer’s action – which must be proven by the far more burdensome “clear and convincing” standard – should not be weighed against a whistleblower’s initial showing.
The brief also argues that the standard for causation should track the statutory language – an employee must show that her protected disclosure was a “contributing factor” in a personnel decision, and then DC can prevail if it establishes by “clear and convincing” evidence that it would have made the same decision for independent, legitimate reasons absent the protected disclosure.