MN Supreme Court Redefines “Good Faith” Under MN Whistleblowers Act
On August 9, 2017, the Minnesota Supreme Court redefined what “good faith” means under the 2013 amendment of the Minnesota Whistleblowers Act (MWA). In Friedlander v. Edwards Life Sciences, LLC, the Court concluded that its prior interpretations of “good faith” gave the phrase a meaning different from the definition provided in the 2013 amendment and, as a result, those prior decisions are abrogated. The Court reasoned that any other conclusion would render the “good faith” definition section of the 2013 amendment superfluous.
The decision ends years of debate about whether the Minnesota Legislature nullified the pre-amendment common law “good faith” requirements. Minnesota courts’ prior interpretation of “good faith” generally had four aspects:
- an employee’s job duties were relevant to the good-faith requirement;
- the employee must have had a subjective intent to blow the whistle;
- the conduct reported must not have been known to the employer; and
- the whistleblower had to be a neutral party attempting to expose an illegality for the protection of the public or some third person.
But plaintiffs’ attorneys, including the attorneys in Friedlander, argued that the 2013 amendments made clear that a report is made in good faith as long as the employee does not make a report knowing that it was false or in reckless disregard of the truth. Therefore, plaintiffs’ attorneys argued, the motivations of the employee were no longer relevant.
The Friedlander court sided with the plaintiffs’ bar, which for employers means that plaintiffs now have an extremely low threshold to meet the good-faith requirement. Consequently, employers should expect to see an uptick in MWA claims, as it is considerably easier for plaintiffs to assert MWA claims when the employer’s knowledge and the employee’s job duties and motivations for reporting are no longer at issue. “This now means that Minnesota has one of the most plaintiff-friendly whistleblower statutes in the country,” says employment attorney Jeremy Robb, who defends employers against whistleblower claims. “Plaintiffs’ attorneys will take advantage by construing any complaint their clients made during the last months of their employment as a good faith report under the MWA.”
To prevent MWA claims, Robb suggests employers should:
- take employees’ reports seriously by thoroughly investigating their reports;
- ensure that employees who make reports are not subject to retaliation; and
- when faced with the possible discipline of a whistleblower, engage outside counsel.